2020, No MPAA Rating, 103 mins.
Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone / Allison Janney as Pam Gluckin / Ray Romano as Bob Spicer / Alex Wolff as Nick Fleischman / Geraldine Viswanathan as Rachel KellogDirected by Cory Finley / Written by Mike Makowsky
BAD EDUCATION - which
premiered on HBO this past weekend - is director Cory Finley's follow-up
effort to this terribly underrated THOROUGHBREDS,
and it once again shows him as an ever-evolving and superlative filmmaking
talent. His latest is an
utterly intoxicating dramatization of the real life tale of the largest
education theft in American history, all of which was exposed, ironically
enough, by a high school newspaper reporter that smelled a financial rat
when no one else did. Not
only does it work masterfully well as a scathing high school satire, but
as a fact based document of deplorable acts of educational extortion
perpetrated by those that are supposed to be the nurturers of our future,
BAD EDUCATION is equal parts amusing and tragic.
And it features Hugh Jackman in the best role and performance of
As for the embezzlement
scheme in question? BAD
EDUCATION hones in on the real crimes of two high ranking school
administrators in Long Island: Roslyn School District Superintendent Frank
Tassone and his second in command in business administrator Pamela Gluckin.
These two were, quite simply, pieces of work: For years they
pettily stole millions from the school district, mostly to selfishly pay
for their own lavish homes and luxurious lifestyles (Tassone spent money
on everything from expensive meals, first class airline tickets, gambling,
cosmetic surgeries, and - in one exasperating reveal - covering his
$30,000 in dry cleaning bills). How
did these crooks get caught? Well,
when an ambitious minded and industrious student, Rachel Bhargava, decided
to dig deep into her school's willingness to spend nearly $10 million on a
skywalk (when it was apparent that her school was physically deteriorating
around her due to years of maintenance avoidance) and uncovered the schemes,
which led to the officials' arrests in 2004.
If this were not based on a
true story then I wouldn't believe any of this for a second.
As the film opens we're
introduced to pre-embezzlement scandal Rosyln High School, which is on the
verge of success, being the
fourth ranked district in the country and whose students are poised for
future college success. The
school's District Superintendent in Tassone (Jackman) takes great pride in
that elite positioning of this school, but always aims for that coveted
number one spot, which leads to him pushing for funding for an elaborate
sky bridge that he hopes will cosmetically improve the look his school
and, in turn, help it with its ranking.
Tassone seems, at face value, like a genuinely caring and hard
working administrator, dealing with the daily demands of helicopter moms,
problem students, and a host of other issues, but he appears to want the
best for his school, its students, and their educational well being. His
right hand woman in Gluckin (Janney) steadfastly supports her boss and
oversees the school's budget. All
in all, everyone seems to love Tassone and his handling of his job.
The one kink in his designer
suits of armor is Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), who has been tasked to
write what amounts to a puff piece on the skywalk, and her initial
interview with Tassone is pretty cordial, even though he seems to
suspiciously skimp on details while paradoxically urging the talented
student to act like a "real journalist" and not be afraid to ask
difficult questions. Well...she
listened. Oh, how she
listened. When she
starts to aggressively research she uncovers some damning anomalies in
terms of who's actually banking the bridge, not to mention that it seems
awfully fishy that Tassone and company want this expensive project when
multiple sections of the school's roof have been leaking water for years.
She finds proof of not just fraud, but massive amounts of
fraud. Gluckin is outed first
as one of the thieves of millions, but Tassone doesn't defend her at all
and systematically asks for her resignation while, shall we say, being
creative with spin doctoring. He's
scared that this scandal could destroy the school.
Little does he know is that Rachel has dirt on him as well, like
how he too has stolen millions to prop up his costly lifestyle to
support not only his closeted gay relationship with his life partner
(Stephen Spinella), but to also support a former student of his (Rafael
Casal), whom he's having an affair with. Yikes.
Tassone makes for an
absolutely fascinating case study here.
He's not an evil man, per se, and in the early stages of the film
Mark Makowsky's script (who was actually a middle student in Roslyn when
this case blew sky high) takes great pains to show this administrator as
one that cares for his student's welfare.
He obviously wants the best for them, even though he used
egregiously backhanded methods to steal from the very school he pledged to
make better. But there's also
an underlining egotism to the man as well: He craved the spotlight, loved
his high ranking role in the district, and yearned to be liked and
appreciated. But his lust for
fame and money ultimately did him in and derailed his career.
He just couldn't keep his hands out of the cookie jar. If anything, BAD EDUCATION is a cautionary tale of how some
people will go to extraordinary measures to ensure their high place on the
economic and occupational totem pole, not to mention that it demonstrates
how one small and innocuous crime can foster larger ones, building to an ever increasing and self-damaging snowball effect.
Tassone, by his own admission, accidentally charged a random pizza
supper to the school's credit card for his first offense...and that led to expensive trips,
Botox treatments, and so on...and so on.
I've always maintained that
Jackman rarely gets the credit he rightfully deserves for being a
sensational talent. The role
of Tassone seems so finely attuned for the Australian performer, as he's a
character that oozes sneaky charm and a effortlessly confident veneer that
exudes great trust, but secretly harbors the heart of a two-timing
hustler. This is probably the
closest that Jackman has ever come to playing multi-faceted villain in a
film, even though this is a vastly more layered and complex kind of
antagonist. His performance
is all about maintaining a Svengali-like level of hypnotizing and seductive
charisma over everyone around him while secretly keeping his warped
motives all to himself. Jackman's
work as Tassone oddly reminded me of what Christian Bale brought to the
table in AMERICAN PSYCHO, another satire that had him play an
exceptionally slick and well put together businessman that used that
facade to hide his sinister impulses. That, and there's many scenes of Tassone obsessively tending
to his facial care - trimming nose hairs, applying anti-aging eye balm,
and fussily tending to every follicle of hair - much akin to Patrick
Bateman's endless full body pampering. Ultimately, Jackman makes us
understand why Tassone was initially admired and later despised, and it's
his thankless and meticulously layered work here that easily would have
garnered Oscar consideration, but won't now due to this film's ineligibility
as a result of it going straight to HBO.
BAD EDUCATION is joyously
littered with multiple strong supporting turns, especially from the always
commanding Janney (who so rightfully and recently won an Oscar for her turn
as a domineering mother in I, TONYA), who
portrays her school official as a woman with limitless power that later
has that power taken away, and the actress showing Gluckin's utterly emotional and career
implosion is a thing of thespian beauty, to be sure.
I also really liked Viswanathan (so very good in the under
appreciated high school comedy BLOCKERS)
as the quiet mannered teen reporter that manages to assuredly stand her
ground with the likes of Jackman and Janney (no easy feat). Her character is interesting too, seeing as her thirst for
the truth forces her to ask how reporting on these school crimes might not
only effect her school, but her own future as well.
Lastly, there's Ray Romano as a school district overseer, and he
proves here as he did in THE IRISHMAN
that a little bit of him goes an very, very long way in a film.
His character has to weigh on his conscience the thorny and nagging
prospects of his school's reputation in the midst of scandal, which could
destroy many livelihoods in the community.
Romano has a moment late in the film when his character confronts
Tassone's indiscretions that's handled with perfect understated restraint
and performance economy.
While watching BAD EDUCATION I was constantly reminded of Alexander Payne's 1999 film ELECTION (one of the greatest high school comedies ever made) in terms of both showing the desperate and self-serving crimes - in one form or another - of amoral teachers that were uncovered by students under them. Both films also showcase how teachers are capable of reprehensible behavior in their quest for empowering the youth of tomorrow. BAD EDUCATION is also a nice companion film to Finley's own THOROUGHBREDS, which also focused on well meaning characters that get taken down through some disturbing decision making vortexes. Both Tassone and Gluckin went to jail for years for their crimes, but - as a shocking end credits title card reveals - the former is still collecting a near $200,000 per year pension due to a ridiculous loophole in New York state pension law. How absurdly shameful. It's enough to make you want to throw something at the screen in disgust. BAD EDUCATION is an infuriating watch, but it goes for the jugular of its subject matter and doesn't hold back, making it one of 2020's most compelling, must-see films.