Bad Education showcases the best film work of Hugh Jackman’s career in the stranger than fiction tale of a conman school superintendent.
I am not sure that I have ever thought of Hugh Jackman as a great film actor. He has always been a tremendously charismatic screen presence, basically the quintessential classic Hollywood leading man. With his classical good looks and stellar song & dance chops, it is easy to envision him slotting somewhere between Gene Kelly and Cary Grant in Hollywood’s Golden Age. He has given great film performances, Logan and The Prestige spring to mind, but he never felt on the level of actors whose mere presence requires my engagement. Bad Education is proof I was wrong.
Telling the true story of a school superintendent, Frank Tassone, who bilked a Long Island township for millions of dollars, Bad Education brings a unique structure to the criminal enterprise movie. Rather than the usual exciting rise into wealth as our protagonist breaks bad, the film picks up in the last year of the scheme as our characters are already deeply embedded in their lifestyle. Slowly, but surely, screenwriter Mike Makowsky (a student at Roslyn high school during Tassone’s real tenure) unravels the layers of the scheme. It is a smart, compelling structure that turns the inevitable, tragic fall into compelling character drama.
Hugh Jackman has never been better. He has generally not been given the chance to play heel in his film roles, but it really suits him. One of director Cory Finley’s (Thoroughbreds) visual motifs sees Jackman viewing himself in the mirror. Each time, be it through the use of a tweezer, a face cream, or a forced expression, we see Jackman putting on his “public” face. Each time, Jackman manages to convey a sense of anger and frustration simmering just beneath the surface of his perfect charming façade. It becomes easy to see how the people around him would have fallen for the man in the mirror, which makes for a crafty subversion of Jackman’s Greatest Showman public persona. When, inevitably, the cracks in his image are laid bare, Jackman does blistering, intense work. It feels like rage, and misplaced victimhood, quite literally pouring out of the performer. He achieves the perfect balance to utterly dominate a scene without resorting to scenery chewing.
Jackman is surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of wonderful supporting performances. Allison Janney (Juno) is superb, per her norm, as Jackman’s deputy superintendent. She, too, is given a full, complex character arc and she knocks out of the park, all while absolutely nailing a pitch perfect Long Island accent and cadence. Much of Bad Education arises from the hubristic prodding of a student by Tassone to treat a school paper assignment to write about a construction project as an opportunity to do real journalistic work. That student, played by the wonderful young actress Geraldine Viswanathan (stellar in last year’s Hala), spends much of the movie as scene sparring partner to Jackman or Janney. A lesser performer may have been consumed by the two stars, but Viswanathan not only holds her own but manages to resonate. Even the film’s lesser roles are populated by splendid actors doing smart, subtle work: Alex Wolff (Hereditary) as the student newspaper editor, Ray Romano (The Irishman) as the head of the schoolboard, Annaleigh Ashford (Showtime’s Masters of Sex) as a secretary in the superintendent’s office. All are given moments to shine.
Bad Education is not perfect. It sometimes struggles with tone – Finley seems torn between a Coens-esque absurd sense of humor and a grimmer character drama. It can lead to a bit of whiplash effect between scenes. The pacing too varies from languid to rocket speed in adjacent scenes. Nevertheless, the film is whip smart on “what it all means.”
The filmmakers turn the school itself into allegory – the ceilings leak rancid water down upon students and teachers as the administration and board plans multimillion-dollar aesthetic enhancements, and vast sums disappear into administrator pockets. Despite all the condemnations of Tassone’s conduct, the reality is that his success at elevating the school district’s ranking – 4th in the nation, as he is quick to remind you! – was worth it for everyone around him. The impressive ranking improved college admissions for students and radically enhanced Roslyn property values. Diminished practical educational facilities are irrelevant if the public idea of the school system looks just right.
Left unsaid is that nobody in the film – or real life – would have traded for a world where administrators did not steal millions. The residents of the community are more than happy to take advantage of Tassone’s conduct, for so long as it benefits them. And I cannot help but point out that the current superintendent of Roslyn schools was more than happy to accept HBO’s checks to film a movie about the moral corruption of her very own school system. Cynical pragmatism remains the norm.
Bad Education is now available on HBO Max.
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