Note: This is a re-post of our Bad Education review from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. The film is now available as an HBO Original Film.
While Hugh Jackman’s legacy will forever be tied to playing Wolverine in the X-Men franchise, every now and then he finds a meaty role that serves as a reminder that he’s also a tremendously skilled dramatic actor with plenty of colors that have gone underutilized for far too long. That’s the case with Bad Education, the second feature from Thoroughbreds writer/director Cory Finley in which Jackman plays a public school superintendent who becomes involved in a massive embezzlement scandal. Based on a true story, Bad Education serves as a pretty searing indictment of greed and privilege, and although the themes don’t entirely coalesce by the end, Finley crafts a consistently compelling and often humorous tale anchored by Jackman’s impressively nuanced performance.
Jackman plays Frank Tassone, a meticulous, sharply dressed Long Island school superintendent who is as attentive to his personal care as he is to his students’ progress. And make no mistake, the film dials in on how Tassone genuinely cares for his students and the stature of the school (ranked #4 when the movie begins, which serves as an impetus to get it to #1). But he’s also overworked and underpaid, and as evidenced by a fairly unbearable meeting with an entitled parent early on in the film, underappreciated. So is Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney, tremendous as always), the school’s assistant superintendent for business and the person responsible for keeping the books on the school’s expenses. Also the person responsible for handling the school credit card…
The internal exposure of certain misdeeds is only the beginning of the story for Bad Education, as Jackman argues successfully to the school board that by going to the authorities, they would put the entire school and community at risk—including housing values. But what he didn’t count on was that by encouraging a young student working for the school newspaper (Geraldine Viswanathan) to push further for her puff piece about a new skybridge to be built at the school, a serious piece of investigating reporting has begun. And boy are there a lot of skeletons in the closets of Roslyn School District.
There are strong Election vibes throughout Bad Education, and it’s a film that is often very funny. Finley hones in on the unglamorous life of a public school administrator by favoring unforgiving fluorescent lighting and spending a good deal of the first act simply showcasing the grinding day-to-day lives of Frank and Pam. It’s in dialing in on how the characters slipped into outright embezzlement where the film falls a bit short, as much of the runtime is more of a cat-and-mouse game with the guilty parties trying not to get caught. Obviously parallels to Wall Street’s financial crimes (and lack of consequences) are present, and clear lines are drawn to a certain other administration that skirted the law by wrapping themselves in lies, threats, and collusion. But as the movie winds down, it doesn’t quite stick the thematic landing, opting instead to cast a bit of a wider net.
But when Bad Education works, it works well. Jackman turns in one of his most compelling performances in recent memory, and the skill with which he masks Frank’s simmering indignity and frustration is downright masterful. This is a truly layered performance, but one in which the layers don’t peel off and devolve into screaming matches or tear-filled breakdowns. Instead, shades of Frank’s true nature are glimpsed only in brief flashes played with expert subtlety by Jackman. Janney similarly is terrific here (but honestly when is she not?), as Pam puts on the face of the woman who holds the school together while enjoying her private life of wealth a bit too publicly. You can pretty much bet that when you cast Allison Janney in your movie she’ll become something of an MVP, and that’s definitely true of her work here.
There’s a lot to like in Bad Education, especially in the performances and how it gives Jackman a chance to show a different side of himself. It doesn’t entirely come together as a satisfying whole—it’s a tad long and the thematic ideals don’t completely coalesce—but Finley is able to craft a handsomely-made, compelling, character-driven feature out of this pretty crazy true story.