REVIEW: Bad Education (2020)

Release Poster – HBO Films

The following is a review of Bad Education — Directed by Cory Finley.

Bad Education is the second film from director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), and the HBO Films drama is based on a New York Magazine article written by Robert Kolker about a public school embezzlement scandal that happened back in the 2000s. The film follows Dr. Frank Tassone (played by Hugh Jackman), the superintendent of the Roslyn Union Free School district, and Pam Gluckin (played by Allison Janney), the assistant superintendent. Gluckin and Tassone have achieved great success as a team as is evident by the fact that their district’s public high school is ranked fourth in the nation at the beginning of the film. But, as one student is about to uncover, their successful partnership is built on illegal activities.

I first heard about Bad Education when it received Oscar-buzz following a festival-screening in 2019. That buzz, however, faded away when the film was acquired by HBO and thus was now destined to be a television film this year, which could, in theory, contend for Emmy Awards instead of Academy Awards. But Bad Education was an HBO acquisition that I always had my eye on as it was the second feature film from Cory Finley, who, with, Thoroughbreds, his directorial debut, had proven himself to be a gifted young filmmaker. Having now, finally, seen it, I can say that though it’s not as sleek or showy as Finley’s debut, Bad Education is a terrific HBO film.

Cory Finley’s Bad Education is really all about cosmetic exercises. Just like Tassone and Gluckin invest heavily in showy but non-essential skywalk-bridges rather than fixing the leak in the ceiling, which symbolizes the rot at the core of Tassone and Gluckin’s partnership, Finley and writer Mike Makowsky’s main characters are overly concerned with appearance. There are multiple scenes, almost in the style of American Psycho, wherein we see Jackman apply make-up to appear younger, and we also see that his entire life is a secret. Indeed, everything the main characters do is in the service of keeping up appearances and hiding the ugly truth underneath.

“A town is only as good as its public school system.”

And yet, Jackman succeeds in making his charismatic but undeniably deceitful character feel likable through most of the film. There is a real complexity to his character. This is a man who has dedicated his life to the under-appreciated job of teaching students and who, somewhere along the way, let innocent mistakes pile up and become disgraceful. In upholding an image, Tassone goes on a diet that has him reject carbohydrates in exchange for some supposedly healthy drink that looks more like dirty oil. It literally looks like Jackman is drinking thick and black poisonous slime to keep himself going. Tassone comes across as a well-meaning teacher who, on his way to the superintendent-position, fell prey to temptation and a system that allowed him to get away with it.

Though not unrecognizable, the make-up department has succeeded in making Jackman look much older than he usually does on-screen. This act of keeping up appearances culminates in a fantastic scene where he snaps at an insistent mother who doesn’t appreciate his tireless work. As Jackman’s retort comes to an end, you see his face fall, and you can almost see all of the years that he has tried to hide. Surgeries and make-up be damned, in this moment you see Frank for who he is — a man weakened by years of hard work and misbehavior. Hugh Jackman has, for the longest time, been known for the claws he dons when he makes superhero blockbuster films, and, in recent years, he has also reminded us that he can be a genuinely entertaining musical actor. His greatest performances have previously been given in films like James Mangold’s Logan and Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, and, although this role is very different from those other two, Jackman’s performance in Bad Education is absolutely one of the very best that he has ever given. Hugh Jackman is outstanding here. It’s in scenes like the one I just mentioned, or even when his character finally acts without restraint, that you see the best sides of Jackman.

But even though this film deals with very serious subject-matter, Finley’s second film as a director is actually a dark comedy, and I thought it was surprisingly hilarious. Annaleigh Ashford got a lot of laughs out of me, and I thought she and Allison Janney had a great comedic rapport. There is also some kind of humor to be found in the way the board deals with terrible news, and Ray Romano is legitimately but quietly funny as a responsible but nervous board member.

Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers) also leaves a very positive impression as a motivated aspiring journalist, who is working on a story for the school paper. Viswanathan was so good, in fact, that I wanted more scenes with her, and I really wanted to know more about her father (played by Hari Dhillon). I feel like the film needed to explain his background a tad better. Alex Wolff (Hereditary) also has a small role in the film, and, even though you don’t need his character to have a bigger role, I do wish that Wolff was in more scenes. If there is to be one major issue with the film, I would say that, while I do appreciate that Tassone is a complicated character, one could argue that it is problematic that Finley, ultimately, allows for Tassone to appear fairly likable in spite of the real-life scandal that he is involved in.

After the excellent directorial debut, Thoroughbreds, I did not think Cory Finley’s next film would be an HBO Film about a school district and the very real lies that it was built on, but, now that I have seen the film, I am very glad that that is what Finley decided to do. Cory Finley’s Bad Education is very entertaining, darkly funny, and it features a fantastic performance from Hugh Jackman. I can’t wait to see what Finley does next, I probably won’t see it coming.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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