You’d be surprised by the parallels between disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding and poker princess Molly Bloom, two very different women who are both the subjects of impressive biopics that debuted Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The Harding of I, TONYA is a self-described redneck who grew up poor, while the Bloom of MOLLY’S GAME is a brilliant, world-class athlete with $5 million in her bank account. Yet both women have complicated relationships with one of their parents, and each is portrayed with Oscar-worthy intensity by an A-list actress — Margot Robbie and Jessica Chastain, respectively.
Harding and Bloom are both women who have been knocked down and picked themselves back up. It won’t spoil anything to say that these two films both end with that very image. They’re both obsessed with winning or being “the best,” and they also both claim to have been victimized by the media, insisting that there’s more to their respective stories and that the press leans on lazy narratives to sell papers.
I, Tonya is the more unconventional of the two biopics due to director Craig Gillespie’s interview-driven approach, whereas Sorkin favors voice-over — something that shouldn’t come as a surprise since he’s a writer above all. Molly’s Game marks Sorkin’s feature directorial debut and he does a solid job behind the camera, but Gillespie is a more experienced filmmaker and it shows in his visuals. Seriously, the figure skating scenes in I, Tonya really held my attention. Gillespie has been a bit of a journeyman filmmaker — competent but workmanlike — but I, Tonya should open some new doors for the director. Plus, I love his accent.
Robbie may not look much like Harding (Twitter pegged her for Jaime Pressly), but that didn’t really bother me one bit. I totally went with it. It helps that the Aussie actress delivers a delicious performance here, one that’s impressively physical. I’m not even talking about the figure skating scenes. Robbie takes a beating here, both from her louse of a husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her abusive mother, who’s played by an incredible Allison Janney… but we’ll get to her later.
It goes without saying that this is the best performance of Robbie’s career, one that proves she can really, truly act. She came out of the gate red-hot with The Wolf of Wall Street, and while she has certainly grown in stature as a movie star since then, nothing has really popped besides her excitable turn as Harley Quinn in the otherwise horrible Suicide Squad. But Suite Francaise? Z for Zachariah? Whisky Tango Foxtrot? The Legend of Tarzan? Defensible choices, some… but not very good movies.
It’s ironic, then, that Robbie’s casting as Harding was seen as a iffy choice at the time. I think people were more intrigued by the idea of a Harding biopic than Robbie’s casting, which seemed like it was driven by foreign sales, almost like stunt casting. Trust me, this is no stunt. Robbie is ferocious as the star skater, putting up with countless abuse, and doling out some of her own. At times, she’s like a hurricane force, such as when she tells one of the judges to “suck my dick.” Oddly enough, I could relate somewhat to Harding’s frustrations, in that she wanted to be judged by the merit of her skating, not her personality or appearance, which is how I feel sometimes. People can talk a lot of shit about me, but it’s never about the actual work. Alas, that’s not how the world works, as Tonya comes to learn.
Meanwhile, Chastain is an unstoppable force in her own right in Molly’s Game. It’s not a physical performance like Robbie’s, and yet it requires a certain verbal athleticism and intellectual dexterity. After basically doing Diet Sorkin in last year’s under-seen, underrated Miss Sloane, Chastain gets the chance to recite the real deal here, and the words just roll of her tongue like weapons. And that’s just Molly’s voice-over! When Chastain gets the chance to go toe-to-toe with one of her formidable co-stars, like Idris Elba as her lawyer or Kevin Costner as her father, the actress rises to the occasion and steps up (forgive me) Molly’s game.
Speaking of Elba and Costner, the latter gets one killer scene, but I’m not sure he does enough to merit an Oscar nomination, not that that’s all we care about ’round these parts. Still, if he wasn’t nominated last year for Hidden Figures, I doubt this one will do the trick. Elba, on the other hand, could be in line for a nomination. He’s another big star who’s better than most of the movies he does, but between Molly’s Game and, from what I’ve heard, The Mountain Between Us, he’s poised to brush off blockbuster dreck like The Dark Tower and Star Trek Beyond.
Elba is at his best when he can really sink his teeth into a character in a well-written drama, and depending on whether or not they’ve seen Beasts of No Nation, some might even say this is the best performance of his career. He gets two really strong scenes in Molly’s Game that showcase his talent, and I could see his peers rallying behind him this year, too.
Elsewhere, it’s fun to watch Michael Cera play poker and be a smug dick, and I appreciated the supporting turns from Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Brian d’Arcy James, Jeremy Strong, J.C. MacKenzie, Graham Greene, Stranger Things star Joe Keery and the Tracking Board’s Up-and-Comer of the Month alum Jon Bass.
But if Molly’s Game has one fatal flaw, it’s that Sorkin seems a bit too infatuated with his subject. Honestly, it’s hard to ignore rumors that the two had a romantic relationship at one point, something that I personally heard from people in Hollywood, in addition to being mentioned as part of coverage of the Sony hack. I wouldn’t really care who Sorkin is or isn’t sleeping with, but Molly’s Game kinda makes Bloom out to be a hero — someone who, jokingly or not, deserves to be on “box of Wheaties” instead of the target of a federal indictment. The problem is that it isn’t true. Molly Bloom isn’t someone we should aspire to be, she’s a cautionary tale.
The same goes for Tonya Harding’s (estranged) mother, LaVona Golden. I, Tonya is as much a sports movie as it is a true crime movie, and in most sports movies, it’s typically either a father or coach pushing an athlete towards greatness, no matter the cost. But here, it’s Tonya’s mother who will spare no expense for her daughter’s career, including Tonya’s feelings. At one point, Tonya calls her a monster, and it’s pretty hard to argue with her, especially by their final scene together. Janney absolutely loses herself in the role, which is the polar opposite from her character on the CBS sitcom Mom. She’s nearly unrecognizable here, and believe me, if Tilda Swinton had played LaVona, every Oscar blogger from New York to Los Angeles would be predicting not just a nomination, but perhaps even a win.
Primarily known as a TV actress (on Sorkin’s The West Wing, no less), Janney is always good on the big screen (think Juno, American Beauty and The Help), but here she’s incredible, and it seems likely that she’ll be impossible to ignore come nomination morning. LaVona is vicious and at times ridiculous, but you can tell she actually believes everything she says, and is always ready rationalize her fairly irrational behavior. At one point, she even throws a knife at Tonya… though I won’t reveal whether that attempt is successful or not.
I also appreciated minor turns from the Tonya trio of Julianne Nicholson (as Tonya’s coach), Bobby Cannavale (as a Hard Copy producer), Mckenna Grace (as young Tonya), and especially Sebastian Stan’s take on the hapless Gillooly, aka “Mustache.” And yet, it’s Gillooly’s antics with Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) that complicate the picture, as their scenes together and that of the actual “incident” are mostly played for laughs, which is one of the more surprising elements of I, Tonya. These criminals are such “boobs” that the film plays at times like Logan Lucky on ice. The tone may throw some audience members for a loop, but I also think it’s one of the things that made this film stand out. I was just expecting something different, more along the lines of a dark sports drama like Foxcatcher. But beggars can’t be choosers now, can they?
In the end, Molly’s Game and I, Tonya have another important thing in common. Sorkin’s film opens with its protagonist talking what the worst feeling is in sports. Losing Game 7 of the finals? Getting swept in four games? Nah. To Bloom, it’s nearly killing yourself on the slopes because of a twig, and if you think otherwise, then “seriously, fuck you.” Well, when Harding has her own career torn away from her in a very different manner, you can practically hear her holding back those words from the judge as she begs to go to jail, the one place Molly is desperate to avoid.
If that’s not film festival poetry, I don’t know what is. Now let the Best Actress race begin!
Possible Oscar Nominations for Molly’s Game: Best Actress (Chastain), Best Supporting Actor (Elba), Best Adapted Screenplay (Sorkin)
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief