LFF REVIEW: “One of the most exciting films of the year” – ‘Bad Education’ (2019)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“A sparkling script in the hands of beguiling leads”

Bad Education dramatizes the largest embezzlement scandal in US public school history. In the early 2000s, New York’s Roslyn school district was shocked to discover that the adored superintendent, along with his deputy, had stolen millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. Bad Education’s screenplay by Roslyn alumnus, Mike Makowsky, is masterfully composed. As the diabolical duo, Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney prove to be a perfect pair.

Just like Alexander Payne’s Election, Bad Education is centred on a school with amoral faculty. In Matthew Broderick’s stead is Jackman, who plays the exceedingly well-groomed Frank Tassone. His slicked back hair, sparkly eyes and perfectly pressed suits make him look the part of the acclaimed superintendent. Frank’s commitment to his job is boundless: he voluntarily runs a book club for pupils’ parents, and he can hold personal conversations with all his staff (à la Miranda Priestly, but without the help of two beautiful aides). Frank is lauded for his decade-long dedication to make the Roslyn district a top performing region.

The foundations of Bad Education bring to mind Jackman’s recent turn in The Frontrunner. Jason Reitman’s political drama recounted the rise and fall of a presidential hopeful. Both of Jackman’s characters had status and secrets, and both were ultimately thwarted by the press. In Frank’s case, however, it was the efforts of a meticulous student reporter, Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), that toppled him.

Bad Education’s screenplay displays a similar attentiveness to that shown by Rachel. Makowsky’s script begins as a tight knot holding back a deluge of truths. Each passing page slowly unravels the threads in a delicate pace that lures viewers into the narrative. With the script’s well-placed twists, including the revelation concerning Frank’s double life, this is genuinely one of the most exciting films of the year.

As the white-collar criminal, Jackman puts on a superb performance and Janney matches his excellence. As Frank’s deputy Pam Gluckin, Janney is at the midway point between The West Wing’s C.J. Cregg and I, Tonya’s LaVona Golden; like Jackman, the severe consequences of her transgressive ambitions still induce empathy from onlookers.

If Jackman is Broderick, then replacing Tracy Flick as the thorn in the male lead’s side is student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan). A great burden is placed on Rachel when she must assess Frank and Pam’s crimes in the light of all the benefits they have brought to the district. It is in this conflict that director Cory Finley shows his skill. He understands the importance of the story in his hands. The dilemma of assessing the truth in the context of the potential negative fallout is portrayed in an exhilarating way. This is a serious story told in a funny, accessible tone – arguably the best approach in this situation.

At the helm of this glorious ship, Finley makes this a spiritual sequel to his directorial debut, Thoroughbreds. Both are sharply executed dark comedies with a diabolical duo at their core. Reteaming with cinematographer Lyle Vincent proves a smart choice. Vincent’s camerawork is effortless and unimposing, and the grainy texture of the film anchors Bad Education both in the early 2000s and as a true story. Completing the brilliant cast are Ray Romano and Rafael Casal, who are memorable without being a distraction from the core tale.

Bad Education received its TIFF premiere during the same week as Makowski’s high school reunion. It is awkwardly poetic that there are people who still wish the whole ordeal would disappear. Fortunately, Makowski knows that this was a story worth retelling. I agree.

With HBO’s recent, pricey acquisition of the distribution rights, Bad Education will eventually premiere on television. Given the TV Academy’s record for awarding anti-heroes, the film can expect to take home a statuette or two at next year’s Emmy Awards.

After all this glowing praise, Bad Education’s finest accomplishment might be getting Hugh Jackman to convincingly play someone who shies away from a dance. Eventually he joins his partner on the dancefloor, as Moby’s ‘In This World’ soundtracks Frank’s final moments in his lavish life.

Dir: Corey Finley

Prod: Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Julia Lebedev, Mike Makowsky, Oren Moverman, Eddie Vaisman

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Geraldine Viswanathan, Rafael Casal, Alex Wolff

Release date: TBC by HBO