The Docu-Dramedy: I, Tonya, The Big Short, Foxcatcher, and the Making of a New Genre

January 5, 2018

A December review of I, Tonya in Vox puts the new biopic about a 1990s figure skater starring Margot Robbie “in the same category as a movie like The Big Short.” What the review picks up on to justify this categorization is the breaking of the fourth wall and the use of split screen in both films to present conflicting accounts of the same story: “the incident” in I, Tonya, meaning the attack on Nancy Kerrigan and the murkiness surrounding Tonya Harding’s culpability, and the housing market crash in The Big Short with its equivalent disputed culpability and competing narratives. I would add a third film — Foxcatcher — and give this movie category a name: the docu-dramedy.

The docu-dramedy stakes out new ground because of its set grouping of characteristic traits. To the breaking of the fourth wall and the use of split screen and conflicting accounts of the “true story” I would add a tendency toward shifting between modes, from the serious and dramatic, even tragic, i.e., millions of Americans evicted, to the goofy, i.e., the characters’ often risibly bad haircuts and laughable dumbness. Another mode that adds to the fluid tonality of these new films is such realism as can be found in documentaries and investigative journalism, which is backed up by the research of the award-winning journalist Michael Lewis in The Big Short and by interviews with the real-life people portrayed on screen in I, Tonya. This serious and lofty mode is often undermined by slapstick, tongue in cheek, irony and satire, suggesting a self-awareness and a mockery of the self-seriousness of the “important” movie, which aims to “set the record straight” on some polarizing, galvanizing current events slash popular culture topic or “issue.”

But these films are more than “genre-bending” — a tired cliché that gets slung around reviews like so many worn out movie genres and narrative arcs. What makes this new kind of movie different is that the characters evoke so many contradictory emotions to the audience: are we repulsed by Alison Janney’s portrayal of Harding’s mother, or do we find her funny? We want her to go away but we want more of her. Do we feel empathy for Harding? What about the cruel fate of the wrestlers played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo: do we feel the emotions of a tragedy, or of a farce? The wrestlers are made hard to take seriously, as is Harding, through the use of caricature, goofy dialogue, bad haircuts, and brutal wardrobes made of clothing that is terribly outdated in 2017.

All of this challenges the old impulse to find someone to root for or identify with. This movie genre is symptomatic of a new time, certainly a time when people are talking about “fake news” and “post-truth” and “fact-checking,” but also a time of multiculturalism, relativism, the growing understanding that there is “more than one truth,” the growing acceptance of a formerly unacceptable variety of ways of seeing the world and living in it.

Viewers are also made in these films to root for the villain, a dynamic that is not new and that follows in a long line of anti-heroes that includes Don Draper in Mad Men and Walter White in Breaking Bad. But viewers in these films often bring certain real-world preconceptions, often of condemnation, to the viewing, because of the wide media coverage of the subjects. And these films present characters who are the object of scorn as victims perhaps worthy of understanding. Steve Carrell’s character in Foxcatcher is portrayed as a monster but also as the victim of abuse and neglect at the hands of his mother. One of the “villains” in The Big Short, who initiates the short-selling of mortgage securities widely believed to have precipitated the financial crisis, is played by Christian Bale, who literally played Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy. Who doesn’t love Batman? Other “villains” were played by Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, heartthrobs who also have played heroic characters in movies such as Drive and Troy. Can millions of Americans forgive the people responsible for tragedy? It is much easier to do when they are portrayed by former super heroes and husbands of Angelina Jolie.

What’s not to like about Alison Janney, the habitué of the indie comedy since at least Juno. So what if she is a monster who abused her child, it’s a movie, and audiences can revel in her caricature of cruelty as a form of comedy, as long as they first abandon their attachment to “the truth”: we cannot at once condemn her and find her amusing, we suspend our notions of truth and culpability. The new genre complicates the notion of an anti-hero with its representation of the lovable monster. But then again, we’ve had a soft spot for King Kong. So what’s really new here? The films undermine realism and mock notions of absolute truth, while at the same time relying on viewers’ real-world preconceptions and attitudes to inform their experience of the film. Along with the breaking of the fourth wall, the films dance between the viewers’ world of “objective reality,” and the film’s representation, which includes competing versions of the same story as told by a constellation of characters, and seem to conclude that none of these true realities are entirely separate, but rather they inform and interact with one another. In the endless competition that takes in the public theater over which version of the truth carries the day, this new genre teaches audiences to let go of their impulse to determine “what really happened that night” and go along for the ride.