Why Does ‘I, Tonya’ Want Us to Think Domestic Abuse Is Hilarious?

Though the film could be a dark horse Oscars contender, there are elements that are upsetting.

'I, Tonya' Review Margot Robbie
Margot Robbie in ‘I, Tonya’ Courtesy Neon

There’s a quick montage early on in I, Tonya—the Margot Robbie-led biopic of former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding—where her mother (Allison Janney) runs the gamut of abuse. She beats her child with a brush, kicks her chair out from under her, and terrorizes Harding in new and inventive ways…but the film wants you to believe that it’s okay—because Janney’s whip crack portrayal is played for laughs, and her all-around terribleness is meant to be entertaining.

Later, following steady abuse from her husband (Sebastian Stan), Harding takes a pot shot at him with a shot gun, which is greeted with big, eruptive chuckles from the audience. Soon after, he slams her face into a mirror.

It’s unclear whether I, Tonya is tone deaf or intentionally backwards in this regard; either grotesque and misguided attempts at comedy, or flatline commentary on physical and emotional abuse. Pick your poison, but both distract from what is otherwise a complex portrait of a story you thought you knew gussied up in an eccentric and enjoyable black comedy.

I, Tonya is about collective cultural abuse and how media-spun narratives can instantly blossom into infamous legacies. It’s about the treatment of women at the hands of friends, family and the world; do they fit into the story we’ve concocted, and, if not, what do we do with them? The movie, stylishly directed by Craig Gillespie—who channels a bit of The Big Short—is empathetic, funny, and brilliantly acted. I, Tonya is an honest look at Harding’s flaws—be they products of nature or nurture—and should be a dark horse Oscars contender.

But while the depiction of abuse grows more frightening and visceral as the story continues, the film plays it for laughs one too many times. These days, that’s difficult to wrap your head around. We rewarded J.K. Simmons’ violently electric performance in Whiplash and, while I, Tonya does ask a similar question—what is the cost of greatness?—it also ends, as you know, on a much more depressing note. More than one life is ruined.

“I’m a real person,” Robbie’s Olympian says at one point in the movie. I, Tonya gets a lot of credit for not shying away from the uglier aspects of her life, but is it ever okay to treat trauma as a punchline? Why celebrate such behavior? Taxi Driver is a classic, but there’s no denying that Travis Bickle is a rage-fueled, delusional stalker. Don Draper is arguably television’s greatest anti-hero, but he’s also an alcoholic womanizer willing to abandon his children at a moment’s notice. Janney is unforgettable in I, Tonya, but her horrendous character is the main source of comic relief. How do we reconcile that? How do we enjoy an otherwise really good movie with those thoughts gnawing at out conscious?

I, Tonya knows that the most flawed thing in this world is humanity. People are the root of all evil and, according to the movie, what we really want is “someone to hate.” But maybe that point is better served by portraying all of the awfulness in Tonya Harding’s life, everything that shaped her, as straightforward tragic happenstance—rather than a gut buster.

Because, as it currently stands, the joke’s on I, Tonya.

Why Does ‘I, Tonya’ Want Us to Think Domestic Abuse Is Hilarious?