Directed by Cory Finley (“Thoroughbreds”) from a screenplay written by Mike Makowsky, who was a student when the Roslyn School District drama occurred in the mid-aughts, “Bad Education” is a darkly hilarious take on the most egregious and lucrative financial crime in the history of the US school system.
Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) dedicated his career to giving the Roslyn School District its prestige. With each passing year, Roslyn’s record number of graduating seniors were being accepted to the very best Ivy League colleges in the country. However, Frank has a very dark secret.
Immaculately groomed and tailored, with a wake-up morning routine that feels frighteningly similar to Patrick Bateman’s in “American Psycho,” Frank is always there for his students and teaching staff. Hell, even on the sidelines, he fervently tries to memorize each and every student’s name and their life’s ambitions. He never wants to lose touch of why he is there in the first place.
It wasn’t an adult or even the New York Times that ended up uncovering the criminal conspiracy Frank concocted with his “assistant superintendent for business” Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) — no, it was actually student reporter Rachel (the excellent Geraldine Viswanathan), who decided to dig into the school’s expense reports to find out that there was an embezzlement scheme worth millions of dollars to expose. All of this happened under the clueless watch of school board president Bob Spicer (Ray Romano).
Much like he did with “Thoroughbreds,” Finley slowly eases us into the drama, taking his time, purely teasing the snowball effect to come. His direction here is controlled, assured and never in a rush. It’s more about the hidden truths behind the frames that matter to him (we all know these people are guilty, this is after all based on a true story), but the pleasures in “Bad Education,” if you want to call them that, come in the form of watching these greedy nitwits try to cover-up their own asses with lie after lie, cover-up after cover-up. It’s such outrageous behaviour that it becomes darkly comical and, yet, it actually happened.
Jackman and Janney are the perfect match to carry “Bad Education” forward, both delivering darkly comedic performances. In fact, this could very well be a career peak for Jackman, an Aussie actor who has had plenty of commercial hits in his career, but has not always had his talents taken seriously by critics. His Frank is a man who can be liable one second and repugnant the next.
The unadorned greed on display is nothing new for Finley, who tackled similar themes in his debut feature “Thoroughbreds”, but unlike that movie, the characters here feel richer and more humane. Count this as another taut, tense and terrific drama from Finley. He’s made another scathing indictment on the way money can corrupt and darken the soul. [B/B+]