Of all the zany things transpiring in “I, Tonya,” the one that takes you by surprise is a claim by Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding that there was a time when she and Nancy Kerrigan were good friends, even roommates. I never really thought about it, but that actually makes sense. Both grew up blue collar in metro areas where elitists make sport of looking down their noses at people like them. Both also grew up eating and breathing figure skating, even though their families could barely afford it. But then “IT” happened.

Of all the zany things transpiring in “I, Tonya,” the one that takes you by surprise is a claim by Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding that there was a time when she and Nancy Kerrigan were good friends, even roommates. I never really thought about it, but that actually makes sense. Both grew up blue collar in metro areas where elitists make sport of looking down their noses at people like them. Both also grew up eating and breathing figure skating, even though their families could barely afford it. But then “IT” happened.

And by “it” I mean what all the colorful characters in Craig Gillespie’s funny, tonally challenged bio-pic refer to as “the incident.” That would be the afternoon of Jan. 6, 1994, on the eve of the U.S. Olympic trials, when a doofus who thought of himself as an assassin smacked Kerrigan in the knee with a steel baton as she was leaving practice. It was the whack heard around the world. And almost immediately, fans of the pretty, sinewy Kerrigan pointed their fingers directly at Harding, even though she was back in her hotel room sleeping.

They were right, of course. Or, were they? Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and his writer, Steve Rogers (“Stepmom”) make a compelling case that both she and her dim-witted ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), really didn’t know about the plan cooked up by Harding’s “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt (a terrific Paul Walter Hauser). What the couple did know about was a less violent, but just as mean, plan to send Kerrigan a death-threat letter just before the competition to throw her off her game. The rest, the movie claims, was all Eckhardt. And Gillespie has a field day poking fun at the cherub man with the bad mustache and delusions of being a counterterrorism operative. Truth is, he lived in his mom’s basement.

It’s hard not to laugh at him, but don’t be surprised if you feel guilty about it. The guy obviously isn’t quite right, and there’s really nothing funny about that. Ditto for his pal, Gillooly, a repeat offender for domestic assault. Stan valiantly tries to make Gillooly laughable, but the giggles stop the instant he starts slapping Tonya around, and at one point, grazing her forehead with a bullet. And that’s exactly where Gillespie repeatedly works himself into a corner, trying to soften – and poke fun at – a brute with zero redeeming qualities. Stan, to his credit, makes you loath loathe the creep. But he’s a choirboy compared to Tonya’s battle ax of a mother, LaVona Golden.

She’s played by likely Oscar nominee Allison Janney, and the actress who shows the woman no mercy, making LaVona out to be the worst mother since Joan Crawford expressed her distaste for wire hangers in “Mommy Dearest.” Like Gillooly, she’s so mean and abusive to her daughter – even at an early age (when Tonya’s played by adorable Mackenzie Grace) – that it’s impossible to laugh at her, even though that’s clearly Gillespie’s intent. And to see the nasty old bat sitting for one of the film’s many confessional interviews with a parrot on her shoulder, you’d swear she was a ruthless pirate in a prior life. But come on, did LaVona really strut around with a parrot on her shoulder? You bet she did, as we see in a series of clips of the real participants during the final credits.

And don’t be surprised if when you see the real Tonya gracefully moving across the ice, performing her famous – and unequaled – triple axel, a tear starts to well in your eyes. Chalk that up to Robbie, who does a magnificent job of humanizing the woman the world saw as a bloodsucking vampire. Robbie doesn’t really look like Harding, and she’s not fooling anyone when the 28-year-old attempts to be convincing as a teenaged Tonya, but she perfectly captures the essence of a girl, and a woman, who spent her whole life craving one elusive thing: love.

It escaped her at every turn, from the father who abandoned her after he was run off by LaVona, and from Gillooly, who was the first boy ever to tell her she was pretty, thus buying himself years of unhealthy devotion from a lonely young woman who had nothing in her life but skating. And even that was hard for her to hold onto considering how the uppity judges considered her little more than athletically gifted white trash.

It’s puzzling why Gillespie opted to retell Harding’s oft-told story, but with big assists from Robbie and Janney, he makes it seem new. And the source of that freshness is Rogers’ idea to structure his script like a documentary, with all the participants looking back with a hindsight deepened by wisdom and memories that see things as they saw them, not as they occurred.

The result is a mostly fun, fast-paced ride that cleverly traces – courtesy of a “Hard Copy” producer played by Bobby Cannavale – how the seeds of sensationalist news were sewn on that fateful afternoon in Detroit, an event that was followed just five months later by the greatest tabloid story of the century, O.J. Simpson. We see the football player’s arrest taking place on Gillooly’s TV shortly before he is headed off to prison. And the image of the two – Gillooly and Simpson – both wife abusers with over-inflated egos standing side by side, says more about us and our unhealthy obsessions than it does about them and their crimes.

Then Robbie’s Harding slaps a period on it by blaming us – yes US – for everything bad that’s happened to her the past 24 years, all because of our need to forever cast her as the villain opposite Nancy’s princess. And you know what really hurts? The fact that she’s right.


I, TONYA (R for pervasive language, violence and some sexual content/nudity.) Cast includes Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney and Julianne Nicholson. Grade: B