“It’s not perfect, but it works.” This line from Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) about halfway through the film builds the central contradiction that propels Cory Finley’s Bad Education like a rocket duct-taped to the bottom of a cheap skateboard. The polish and cold finesse of Finley’s previous film, Thoroughbreds, is noticeably missing here, trading a refined imitation of the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos for a more grainy, realistic portrait of greed and moral justification. As the defining flourishes of his previous film wane, though, what is left is a craftsman chiseling away with an incredible consistency that helps turn Finley from a one-trick pony into an exhilarating creator to keep an eye on.
Bad Education tells the true story of the 2004 Roslyn High School embezzlement scandal where around $10 million was siphoned from school funding by its administrators over a few years. At the center of the scandal is Tassone and Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) who slowly watch their manifested lives crumble around them as a student reporter for Roslyn’s school paper, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) begins to notice the various ways the institution’s numbers don’t add up. Half a journalism drama and half a dry comedy about the folly of well-meaning white-collar crime, Bad Education’s juggling act helps the dense economic discussions and paperwork feel alive and immediate, all the while teeing up character moments for humor and absurdity. It’s a strangely compelling film, with all three of the film’s leads sharing the spotlight and being the focal point of their stories until they’re forced to reckon with the other narratives happening around them. If the script was written in a screenwriting class, it would fail. That’s usually a sign that something at least interesting to watch is going down.
With a supporting cast that includes Ray Romano, Alex Wolff, Annaleigh Ashford, Jimmy Tatro, and a standout Rafael Casal, Bad Education’s greatest achievement is how unassuming the viewing experience is, offering a humanity to the characters that is paid in kind by the all-around fantastic performances. With a cast like this, with a hot button topic like this, with a true story basis like this, with a 2019 festival premiere like this film had, it’s easy to walk into Bad Education expecting a film with its thumb firmly lodged up itself; that isn’t to say that having an air of importance to a film is always necessarily bad, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the absence of pretense here so refreshing. Despite Jackman deserving it, this isn’t a performance that is interested in awards, and in comparison to Thoroughbreds, where the performances commanded that film’s energy with an iron fist, here the synergy between every aspect of the film is so natural and unassuming that the façade of performance is almost completely gone. Yes, that’s still the Wolverine dude and the mom from Mom, but I found it much easier to buy into the reality of Bad Education than I usually do with these sorts of films.
It’s that impossible tonal balance between easy viewing and hard-hitting storytelling, the sort of movie you immediately recommend to your mom without worrying that she’ll get bored or become the sort of person that falls in love with a mediocre movie (we all have a Greatest Showman in our lives). Bad Education makes you happy to watch it, which is probably the film’s greatest failing. It’s so pleasant and well-organized that the rage elicited by these real-world criminals, which the film acknowledges in bizarre and altogether confused ways, feels diluted. By turning people into caricatures and then back into people, some of the emotional heft is lost, but these trade-offs always yield positive results. It’s not the sort of film to inspire the revolution, and it probably shouldn’t be, but the refreshing lack of importance leads to a small empty space for the kernel of passion similar real-world stories can offer.
I had a great time with Bad Education. It’s funny, engrossing, and naturalistic in all the right ways. And I feel a little cheated that I had such a great time.
B Review alex wolff allison janney annaleigh ashford b bad education 2020 cory finley geraldine viswanathan hbo hugh jackman jimmy tatro mike makowsky rafael casal ray romano thoroughbreds yorgos lanthimos