I, Tonya + Molly’s Game: Clumsiness and Condescension

Image courtesy of Neon.

I, Tonya: ** ½
Molly’s Game: * ½

At a time when the state of gender relations in Hollywood has come under unprecedented scrutiny, two of this year’s Oscar contenders feature strong-willed female protagonists who find themselves exploited by men and the media. The first, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, deals with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), a figure skater who became tabloid fodder in the 90s after she was accused of engineering a plot to break a competitor’s knee. (That competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, recovered from the injury – and eventually won a silver medal at the 1994 Winter Olympics.) The second, Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, follows the life of Molly Bloom, an entrepreneur who channeled her frustration at not making the 2002 Winter Olympics into the creation of an underground celebrity poker ring.

The worth of both of these films stems almost singlehandedly from their performances. In Tonya, the obvious star of the show is Robbie, who imbues her first lead role with a remarkable grit. But the biggest reason you’ll feel the urge to stay through the film is Alison Janney: as Tonya’s mother, she pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of making an abusive, manipulative jerk seem likable. Meanwhile, in Molly’s Game, the somewhat monotonous ferocity of Chastain’s character might remind you of some of Chastain’s earlier roles (see Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane). But it’s worth noting that Molly Brown has a more meaningful backstory than either Maya or Elizabeth Sloane. And if nothing else, Idris Elba (as Molly’s lawyer) does an excellent job playing the skeptical foil to Molly’s seemingly limitless drive.

Image courtesy of Neon.

Unfortunately, however, everything else about both of these movies leaves much to be desired. Tonya, for starters, can never settle on what attitude it should adopt towards its subject matter. At times, it clearly opts for sympathy: Gillespie frequently suggests that Tonya was one of the first victims of the 24/7 media cycle, and in one scene, Robbie-as-Tonya breaks the fourth wall and openly accuses the audience of “not caring about” the quality of her skating (i.e. “what really mattered”). In terms of style, moreover, the film regularly sets up contrasts in which Tonya is stuck in a shadowy part of the frame – all while other characters (including her competitors) are usually shown in a lighted area instead.

There are just as many places in the film, however, where Gillespie treats Tonya and the other characters with unvarnished condescension. Such arrogance persistently manifests itself in the dialogue through mean-spirited humor: one characteristic scene features Tonya’s “bodyguard” (Paul Walter Hauser) repeatedly making the implausible claim that he’s a “counterterrorism expert.” And from a stylistic perspective, the film often opts for a sarcastic form of exaggeration; as just two cases in point, see the deliberately overdone neon lighting that sets up several confrontations between Tonya’s husband (Sebastian Stan) and bodyguard, or listen to the tauntingly melodramatic background music that plays over the scene in which Kerrigan is “taken down.”

Elsewhere, Gillespie has stated that he intended to “give an understanding to the world they [the characters] came from” – that in making Tonya, he sought to show “the effect of the [24/7] media [on people]” without going so far as to “demean the characters.” In practice, however, his continual willingness to mock Tonya and her world all but undercuts whatever media critique he tries to advance. If anything, in fact, Tonya reminds you more of Fargo and Philomena – two films that win the goodwill of the audience via patronizing, “look at them hillbillies go” portrayals of clueless protagonists – than Network and The Truman Show. At the end, we might indeed come to look on Tonya, her mother, her husband, and all the other people in her life with some degree of sympathy. But it’s the kind of empty, “aww, poor girl” pity that nobody with even a sliver of dignity would accept.

Image courtesy of STXfilms.

Meanwhile, Molly’s Game suffers from one fundamental problem: it almost always opts for telling over showing. The movie is defined by the ubiquitous presence of expositional background narration; if anything, Molly-as-narrator spends so much time explaining what’s going on that said explanations end up superseding the actual story. Sorkin adapted the screenplay from a tell-all written by the real-life Bloom, but his direction consistently proves so heavy-handed that you’re ultimately left wondering why he thought her story was suitable for the big screen. His use of the cinematic medium – the only style he has lies in his stultifying over-reliance on medium close-ups – adds little of value to the basic narrative of Bloom’s life, to the point that you often feel like you’re just listening to an elaborately made audiobook.

On second thought, let me qualify some of those statements. What really makes Molly’s Game frustrating is the fact that Sorkin occasionally does show real potential as a visual storyteller. Take the moment, for example, when Elba’s character asks Molly about her father (Kevin Costner) – and instead of having Chastain deliver yet another voice-over monologue, Sorkin cuts to a scene in which a young Molly overhears her parents having an argument over her dad’s infidelity. Or look at the way Sorkin uses fade-ins and fade-outs to illustrate Molly’s mental state in the aftermath of a brutal assault. In such moments, Sorkin clearly demonstrates that he’s capable of showing instead of telling. Which makes it all the more saddening that these scenes are invariably overshadowed by the blatancy pervading every other part of the script. (The worst offender? Probably a scene in which Molly-as-narrator says, “My lips were bleeding” – all while we’re presented with an image of Chastain mending a bleeding lip.)

The funny thing about Molly’s Game is that it remains completely engrossing in the moment – despite the fact that, as mentioned, it’s really nothing more than an overlong monologue about the arcane intricacies of law and poker. Don’t be deceived, however. The movie’s riveting feel is really just a testament to Sorkin’s ability to hoodwink you with two tried-and-true techniques: extremely rapid editing (few shots last more than a couple of seconds) and the inclusion of a verbal confrontation at the end of just about every scene (à la The Social Network and Steve Jobs, two of Sorkin’s earlier successes as a screenwriter). Sorkin is a one-trick pony – but when it comes to the one trick he knows (i.e. talky films about argumentative, socially awkward savants), you can’t deny that he knows it extremely well. And in Molly’s Game, he demonstrates this capability with such aplomb that you might just forget that there’s really nothing behind it.

Image courtesy of STXfilms.

***

I, Tonya (2017) Molly’s Game (2017)
Starring: Margot Robbie, Alison Janney Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba,
Kevin Costner
Running Time: 121 minutes 140 minutes
MPAA Rating: R R
Produced by: Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie,
Steven Rogers, Bryan Unkeless
Mark Gordon, Amy Pascal, Matt Jackson
Written by: Steven Rogers Aaron Sorkin
Directed by: Craig Gillespie Aaron Sorkin