Friday, April 24, 2020

Movie Review: Bad Education

Bad Education **** / *****
Directed by: Cory Finley.
Written by: Mike Makowsky 
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Frank Tassone), Allison Janney (Pam Gluckin), Ray Romano (Bob Spicer), Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Kellog), Alex Wolff (Rachel’s Editor), Kayli Carter (Amber McCarden), Rafael Casal (Kyle), Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford, Hari Dhillon, Jimmy Tatro (Pam’s Son), Jeremy Shamos, Kathrine Narducci, Pat Healy (The D.A.).
Bad Education pulls off a neat trick that is probably a lot harder than it sounds. This is the story of the largest embezzlement scandal in American Education history – where a Superintendent and his assistance steal millions of dollars from the school district. As you watch the film, you should hate Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) – even before you find out what he’s done. He’s one of those annoying too perfect to be true guys that you hate if for no other reason than because everyone else loves him. And yet, you don’t hate Frank – you don’t hate him even when all the pieces come together. You don’t forgive him, you understand him. You pity him. And perhaps more than you want to admit, you relate to him. He’s a quintessential American – he knows he has “earned” his success, and so he can do what he wants.
The film opens in 2002 in Roslyn New York – on Long Island – where the School District is number 4 in the entire country. Everyone knows that the reason for this is Frank Tassone (Jackman) – the Superintendent, who will do whatever possible to ensure that the school district doesn’t settle for number 4 – they’re going to be number 1. With a great school district, everyone wins – home prices soar, kids get into Ivy League Schools, and the taxpayers don’t even mind shelling out millions of dollars on a Skywalk – which doesn’t sound necessary, but which everyone assumes is not only necessary – but will also get them to number 1.
Everyone loves Frank. Of course they do – he’s so friendly, so charming, so handsome. He never forgets a student, never forgets a parent – and is so patient in dealing with everyone – from overinvolved parents who believe their special little angel is gifted, and if the marks aren’t there, it’s because the teacher has it in for them, or the mom’s Book Club, which he attends. And it’s so sweet that he’s still dedicated to his long-deceased wife that no one actually remembers, but he still talks about her, still wears a wedding ring, and has a picture of her on his desk. Frank and his assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney, having a blast doing a Long Island accent, but also finding the humanity within) operate as a well-oiled machine. They get things done – and as long as things are getting done, then no one questions anything. Why would the PTA President (Ray Romano) care, when Frank can get his kids into Harvard or Yale?
Frank is the engineer of his own downfall in many ways – not least of which because he encourages Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan, even better here than in Blockers, where she was a standout) that the piece she’s writing for the school newspaper about the Skywalk need not be a Puff Piece if she doesn’t want it to be. This encourages her to dig – and digging leads to trouble.
Little by little, everything becomes clear – as the pieces start to fall into place. A trip to Las Vegas – where the members of school board, all rich, head to the casino, Frank spends in dry seminars before a chance encounter with a former student – Kyle (Rafael Casal) confirms what we already suspected. Things start to fall apart at home when Pam’s idiot son (Jimmy Tatro, essentially repeating his brilliant American Vandal performance) does some things with a school district credit card he shouldn’t have done. Suddenly the leaky roof in the school building, and the old photocopier start making more sense.
Jackman has always been a talented actor, but he’s not always been an actor whose talents are used properly. His Frank here is some of the best work of his career – certainly his most relatable human – with all of his vanity and charm on display, only serving to make him more human, not less. He plays a little bit off his own image here – and does it with great effect. Frank is a vain character in some ways – but Jackman’s performance is far from vain. He is supported by a great supporting cast – all of whom hit the right notes – but this is Jackman’s show, and he isn’t giving it up.
The film was directed by Cory Finley – although if you saw his stellar debut (last year’s Thoroughbreds) you probably wouldn’t guess it. The two don’t share a lot in common, either stylistically or thematically – but both do show just how great Finley is at playing the long game – seeing how everything is going to come together in the end, and setting it all up right under our noses with realizing it. The film would pair nicely with Alexander Payne’s masterpiece Election, because although Payne’s film is better, they both share a satirical outlook – and both have at their core a seemingly rotten teacher, who by the end you love, loathe and pity – in part because they still don’t understand that they are the architects of their own downfall. To them, everything is till someone else’s fault. 

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