Review: Hugh Jackman Rocks in Cory Finley's Superb 'Bad Education'
by Alex Billington
April 27, 2020
Is there ever any good in vanity? Not really. But we never seem to learn our lesson, doomed to fall prey to the merciless grip of vanity and fame and glory and success. And it always leads us down dark paths towards dead ends, no matter what. Bad Education, directed by Cory Finley, recalls the true story of one tragic downfall of vanity. The beloved superintendent of Long Island's Roslyn school district, Frank Tassone, and some of his staff, have been grossly misusing funds provided to the public school district. Bad Education is the story of how their schemes and sneakiness was uncovered – by one intrepid student working for the school newspaper. The fictionalized feature is as outstanding as everyone has been saying since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year. I'm glad to say that I loved this film, one of the best of the year so far.
Bad Education is the second film made by Cory Finley, who broke out with the underrated Thoroughbreds (which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival). Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, and at the start, he seems innocent. He's just an educator doing his job. The big, bad embezzler is Pam Gluckin, played precisely by Allison Janney, who was even letting her sketchy relatives use the credit cards. When one of them goes on a home improvement spending spree, the rest of the execs at the school district find out and the dominoes begin to fall. Once they start looking into records, it goes from a "mere" $200,000 to millions of dollars spent and sent to mysterious companies for shady contracts. None of which are real. Then Rachel, played by Geraldine Viswanathan, starts to sniff around for her story and everything begins to unravel.
Finley's great skill as an talented filmmaker is in carefully crafting films that hook you into their narrative, without giving away everything right from the start. There are striking moments and scenes that you think mean something interesting early on, but take on a whole different meaning later once you really know what's happening. The screenplay for Bad Education, written by Mike Makowsky, is designed to make you feel some sort of sympathy for a few characters, but also cleverly constructed to shock with the truth as it continues to reveal itself. Combined with top notch performances from the entire cast, especially Jackman in a masterful multi-layered role. He is the centerpiece because, despite greed and vanity, he is still a tragic character. This really is about him, and his two-face persona. Hopefully we all learn a lesson from his story.
There's one particularly outstanding music choice at the end - Moby's "In This World". It plays over a scene that beautifully allows us, the audience, to understand Tassone with greater depth than he might even know himself. I've seen some other critics call him an evil character, but I don't agree. He is just a lonely person looking to be someone in this world, like we all are. He just let that vanity take a hold of him, and it ruined him. Forever. There are a few other knock out scenes in the second half that left me floored. The ending of this film comes together in such an impressive way with a few of these exhilarating scenes with Jackman killin' it. This is what truly terrific filmmaking is all about – establishing a compelling narrative, directing superb performances from the cast, and crafting scenes in just the right way to offer us nuanced storytelling.