The Corner

Culture

I, Tonya‘s Comedy

In response to Tim Heffernan

I watched I, Tonya this weekend, and I thought it was a very compelling movie, but I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. I’ve gone back and read Kyle Smith’s review and Kevin Williamson’s soft dissent from it. I guess I’m more in Kevin’s camp. I think Kyle makes many fine points, even if I don’t wholly subscribe to all of them. Kyle takes great exception to the decision to tell Harding’s story as a dark comedy. I think it was the right decision. If you told this story as a tragedy — which it easily could be since that’s what it was in real life — it would be an intensely grim affair. That’s okay, there’s a place for grim movies. But I don’t think it would be a better movie or one I would want to watch.

The fact that it would be a very different movie if Tonya Harding were black is a very interesting idea to noodle, but I don’t think that standard should be dispositive in any way. I can think of all sorts of comedies and dramas centered around black characters that wouldn’t work the same way — or perhaps at all — with white characters. That merely reflects the fact that black culture and white culture — and all of the myriad subdivisions between those overly broad categories — are complicated.

I liked I, Tonya, though it did make me uncomfortable at times. But, ultimately, I saw it as a cousin of various Coen brothers’ movies. The Coens are masters at zeroing in on slices of America, both contemporary and historic, and making them compelling. Fargo is not strictly speaking a comedy, but it wins a great number of laughs at the expense of upper-mid-westerners. (Interestingly, the Fargo TV series is listed as a comedy, even though I don’t think it goes for the yucks that much more than the movie that inspired it.) Raising Arizona is a comedy, but it is not sparing in its lambasting of “white trash.” Similar points can be made about O Brother, Where Art Thou, A Serious Man, and maybe a couple others.

I might have felt even more sorry for Tonya Harding if the movie had been shot as a dreary examination of her life, but the laughs did not prevent me from feeling sympathy for her. And I suspect that’s true for a lot of people who saw the movie — people who might not have seen at all if the director had been faithful to the bleak story that inspired it.

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