There’s a great little moment in Bad Education – the Cory Finley directed film where Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is in a Vegas nightclub. He’s a gay man living a closeted yet affluent lifestyle. His spouse lives in a New York apartment, but to his work colleagues, they naturally assumed he had a wife who tragically passed away. At the club, he’s having an affair with Kyle (Rafael Casal), a former student he used to teach. And as much as he tries to avoid Kyle’s dancing advances (set against the backdrop of Moby’s In This World), he reluctantly joins but struggles to find a rhythm.
There’s a part of you mentally encouraging Jackman to break character for a split second, slide into that naturally charismatic talent he possesses, throw on a top hat and burst into song with The Greatest Show. But Finley quickly reminds you that this is not The Greatest Showman. Bad Education strips his persona bare.
On the surface, Jackman portrays the model all-American – the immaculate prep with the perfectly suited attire, a religiously daily make-up routine and a strong-willed community influence that could decide the educational fate of the students at Roslyn School. It’s almost Presidential – Frank Tassone, keeping up appearances as the man of the people. But underneath, is a shady schemer who embezzled millions out of the school district to fund his lavish lifestyle – and it’s all done with Jackman’s trademark charisma.
For a role that is so uncharacteristic and sociopathic, but takes full advantage of his showmanship personality, you can tell Jackman loved throwing himself into the part. In essence, he is the perfect casting choice. The Front Runner may have been the beginning of Jackman stretching his palette, but in Finley’s Bad Education, it’s up there as a career-best.
Not to be confused with the Jack Whitehall BBC comedy of the same name, we shouldn’t be surprised that Bad Education is based on a true story. Written by Mike Makowsky (who attended the school in question), he presents this as a part drama, part satire affair with all of its complicated grey areas. Fitting the bill as a true-crime narrative, occasionally it lacks a hard-hitting edge, but like the gift of foresight, it has impeccable timing considering the recent college admissions scandal (which will probably be a movie sometime in the future). Whitney Houston said it best in The Greatest Love of All – “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way”, and if there was a hidden lyric applied to this film, then the children will take you down!
It’s a seed that’s planted by Jackman’s Tassone, encouraging a young school journalist in Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan) to go beyond the mere ‘puff piece’ editorial about the school’s brand-new Skywalk project. What follows next is a domino-effect calamity and financial discrepancies, exposing one teacher, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) and her house renovations in the Hamptons, before falling like a house of cards in exposing Tassone’s frailties and the district’s systemic-wide problem.
The hilarity comes with how the school deals with the crisis, knowing it could damage their all-star image. Makowsky’s off-kilter script (with its occasional sharp one-liners) portrays itself as a virus, something that slowly embeds unsuspectingly before slowly turning into a code red epidemic. It enjoys the incompetence and complicity of its staff, but it also acknowledges its subtle push to understand why. Because if everything is going well, why would anyone question it?
Coming off the success of his first feature Thoroughbreds, what Finley amplifies from Makowsky’s script is the deceptive image of perfection and how Tassone and company led double lives in their imitation of success. Instead of dealing with all of its complications of reality, they built up a delusional, privileged fantasy where money clouded their judgement with a righteous belief in their moral justifications. And just like the much-fabled ‘American Dream’ that accumulates materialistic wealth, elevates statuses and devoured loop-holes, they never prepared for the inevitability that the luck would soon run out, caused by their self-destructive stupidity and negligence.
It’s hard not to appreciate the lengths that Bad Education goes through to impress. Technically, Cory Finley executes it with suitably-paced freedom in the condemnation of their actions. He allows their greed to fester never judging them or their rehearsed excuses. If there is empathy, then it’s kept at a distance. Its only complaint is the limited screen time for Janney. But for someone who can ‘do no wrong’ in my eyes, she makes every scene count.
But the Finley and Makowsky collaboration does celebrate something that should not be overshadowed by its established cast – the spirit of investigative journalism with a female lead. While some films make a big ‘song and dance’ over inclusivity (which at this point can feel like a trend), Finley’s approach is subtle throughout. In Rachel, she’s the moral compass amongst the darkly comedic absurdity. But acting with a quiet determination, yes, she follows the Superintendent’s advice, but beyond that, she acts of her own accord. She defies her editor (played by Herditary’s Alex Wolff) despite him saying “we’re not the New York Times” and pushes forward to unravel the hierarchical secrets despite the noticeable intimidation by Tassone. Think of Bad Education as the junior edition of Spotlight, and in Geraldine’s underrated performance, Jackman may be the main attraction, but here, you have an undeniable hero.
And you know there is a sense of irony when the film ends with Dido’s White Flag – another Easter egg of its noughties setting. But as a slice of compelling entertainment, Bad Education brings out the best in Hugh Jackman, and given its timely relevancy, it goes to show how America still has some learning to do.
BAD EDUCATION is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. For screening details and ticket availability, please visit their website for more details. Released in UK cinemas on October 7th.