'Bad Education': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Gets a solid B+ without even cheating.

Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney and Ray Romano star in 'Thoroughbreds' director Cory Finley's second feature, which was inspired by a school district scandal on Long Island.

An embezzlement scheme whose total take was $11.2 million seems like peanuts compared to Enron, Bernie Madoff or any other billion-dollar fraud of our epoch.

But in Cory Finley’s engagingly devious new dramedy Bad Education, it takes on the guise of a real-world morality play where the mighty fall from up high — even if up high means the superintendent seat of a public school district on Long Island.

Based on a scandal that rocked the upmarket New York suburb of Roslyn over a decade ago, and adapted to the screen by a former student, Mike Makowsky, who witnessed the ordeal firsthand, the film marks something of a departure for Finley from his pitch-black comic debut Thoroughbreds, which drew more than one comparison to Heathers.

Here, the satire is softened to let reality sink in, with characters and plot points drawn from actual sources, resulting in a movie that plays like a slow-burn investigative thriller with comic touches and a major comeuppance in the last act. It’s perhaps less flamboyantly enjoyable than Finley’s first feature, but it also digs deeper into the souls of its characters, asking how a few people meant to ensure the pedagogy of hundreds of children could flunk out so badly.

The man behind all the monkey business was one Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the beloved Roslyn School District superintendent who rules over his fiefdom like a lifelong educator, assuaging the fears of overzealous parents and encouraging his students with generous pep talks. He’s assisted by Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who minds the budget in the office next door, and flanked by school board president Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), who works as a local realtor and sees Frank's success as his ticket to major bucks.

With his house-of-wax complexion, oversize suits and jet-black pompadour, Frank resembles a textbook New Yawk bureaucrat, even if he reads Dickens for fun and appears to be more refined. Jackman slips into such a role perfectly, staring beady-eyed at his interlocutors in the creepy way we all remember school officials used to look at us, and joining Janney, Queens boy Romano and the rest of the cast in a chorus of Long Island accents that could constitute its own Billy Joel fan club.

Initially the film’s plotting seems a bit subdued as we follow Frank on his mission to make Roslyn number one in the region — only in such a location-specific movie could the competing towns of Jericho and Syosset be referred to as “sons of bitches” — watching as he deals with the dull day-to-day duties of running his district. Things seem to be going fine, and Frank seems like a great guy, so why should anybody worry?

It’s at this point that the superintendent dishes out advice to an eager but somewhat inhibited student reporter, Rachel (the excellent Geraldine Viswanathan), telling her to take the puff piece she’s writing about a planned school renovation a little more seriously. Little does he know that Rachel will become the Woodward & Bernstein to his Richard Nixon, spinning her story into a full-blown inquiry that will open up a giant can of worms.

Things slowly but surely unravel, and then completely fall apart, as we learn that the supposedly grieving widower Frank leads a double life both professionally, where he's been generously serving himself from the district cash till for a good decade, and personally, when we see him start a fling with a former pupil, Kyle (Rafael Casal), now working as a bartender in Vegas. Meanwhile, right-hand gal Pam has been doing some unruly things with the official credit card, including making major improvements on a house in the Hamptons that seems way over her pay grade. This will get her fired, but it will also be the tip of the iceberg in a much bigger conspiracy.

If Finley eases us into the action during the first hour, teasing out lots of information with occasional jokes and digressions, his film snowballs into a tragic-comic tale of retribution in the second half as Frank’s glistening mask of Botox tumbles, taking down everyone else in the room. It’s at this point that emotions run high, especially during a rather moving montage and dance sequence — set to Moby’s “In This World,” which came out a few years before the actual scandal broke — where we see Frank experiencing one sad last hurrah before his number’s up.

While the filmmaking overall is less distinctive here than in Thoroughbreds, the characters seem more lifelike and the story itself is riddled with irony. Frank is not only undone by one of the very students he tried to motivate, but the movie ponders what his guilt means in a place where parents, many of them way wealthier than he is, are constantly pushing him for favors and then showing little gratitude for it: Didn’t the guy deserve a few million for helping so many of their kids get into Harvard?

Working once again with cinematographer Lyle Vincent, Finley captures this ethical shit show in cool colors and wide lenses that frame Jackman against some of L.I.’s finest schools, administrative offices and seven-figure homes. Production design by Meredith Lippincott and costumes by Alex Bovaird further add to the suburban authenticity, turning Bad Education into a paean to bad taste and even more questionable morals.

Production companies: Automatik, Sight Unseen, Slater Hall
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Ray Romano,  Alex Wolff
Director: Cory Finley
Screenwriter: Mike Makowsky
Producers: Fred Berger, Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Oren Moverman, Mike Makowsky
Executive producers: Leonid Lebedev, Caroline Jaczko
Director of photography: Lyle Vincent
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Editors: Louise Ford
Composer: Michael Abels
Casting directors: Ellen Lewis, Kate Sprance
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Endeavor Content (U.S. and international), CAA (U.S.)

103 minutes