Bad Education ★★1/2
Available: Streaming HBO
Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney pull out all the stops as Superintendent Frank Tassone and Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin of the Roslyn School District. Tassone’s calculated charm and Gluckin’s attention to financial detail have propelled the high school in this well-off Long Island suburb to #4 in the nation. In the long, slow set-up of “Bad Education,” Tassone caters to helicopter parents, memorizes his teachers’ hobbies, and coddles students with unctuous caring for their needs.
Along comes earnest student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), doing a puff piece for the school newspaper on the high-priced and glitzy “Skywalk” the district wants to build, part of Tassone’s plan to get the school the attention it needs to be #1. In the process, Rachel uncovers millions of dollars gone astray. Not for lab equipment or pizza ovens, not for repair of the crumbling buildings, but for Tassone’s gay lover in the City and his face lift, for Gluckin’s home expansion and her daughter’s private college tuition.
The heart of the film isn’t suspense over what might happen; it’s the unalloyed, guilt-free hubris of the perps.
These aren’t spoilers. The heart of the film isn’t suspense over what might happen; it’s the unalloyed, guilt-free hubris of the perps. Tassone thinks he deserves his lavish lifestyle. An undercurrent of jealousy of, and disdain for, white upper-class privilege runs through his critique of the wealthy students’ parents and Roslyn’s School Board, including its president (Ray Romano). Commiserating with a mother who insists her child—who cannot pronounce “accelerated”— be in the “accelerated” class, he finally explodes, “What is MY problem? My problem is YOU. It's the people who trot their poor children out like racehorses at Belmont; who derive some perverse joy out of treating us like low-level service reps.”
“Bad Education” resonates with the 2019 college admissions cheating scandal.
“Bad Education” resonates with the 2019 college admissions cheating scandal, except that Roslyn reached the top 10 without, it appears, cheating. Tassone’s goal—and that of the students and the parents—is the national ranking, and it’s unrelated to the corruption.
Perhaps for that reason the film makes these crooks likeable. It spends relatively little time on the student reporter who uncovers the scandal. Gluckin’s crookedness, which is in the family DNA down to her son and niece, is incongruously funny. Like Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018), Jackman and Janney may be just too good at playing bad guys.
What level of corruption are we willing to tolerate to get what we want?
This straight-to-TV film raises serious questions: What level of corruption are we willing to tolerate to get what we want? (The parents crave and celebrate the school’s high status; the students get into better colleges, home values rise). Is a level of corruption tolerated everywhere? Are most of us easily taken in by charismatic but seemingly corrupt performers—today, a President and a governor—who tell us we can be bigger than we are?
The sharp-tongued script and superb acting (Jackman and Janney could show up in the 2020 Oscar nominations), especially Jackman playing against type as a gay man with a spouse in one city and a young lover in another, make “Bad Education” good—not great—Hollywood.
Director Cory Finley, for whom this is a second feature, lived this story; he was a middle school student in the Roslyn system in 2004 when the real Tassone was hauled off to jail.
Date: 2019; released in US straight to TV in 2020.
Director: Cory Finley
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Ray Romano
Runtime: 108 minutes