May 10, 2020
Bad Education (2019)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Cory Finley
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan

What it's about. Based on a true story. It first appears that superintendent of schools Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is a great success. His prize school, Roslyn, has risen to among the most elite high schools in America. He is an effective leader, and the master of every situation.

His best friend at work is his assistant, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). She has a volatile home life that includes a new husband (Ray Abruzzo), niece Jenny (Annaleigh Ashford), and a dufus grown son (Jimmy Tatro). It becomes clear that Pam funds her lavish lifestyle and home improvement projects with embezzled school district funds.

But she's not alone. Her family participates in the grift, as does Tassone. The latter pays for his suits, his luxury travel, and his cosmetic surgery with taxpayer money. He has an older long-term lover (Stephen Spinella) and a new younger boyfriend (Rafael Casal) who don't know about the other.

The truth will come out, and the inevitable occurs when the dufus son's reckless spending at hardware stores catches up with his family. Gluckin is cornered, but Tassone convinces the school board to cover up the crime to avoid bad publicity.

Tassone's own downfall comes later, when hard-working school reporter Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) follows leads that confirm Roslyn's costly skywalk project is a black hole of funds padding the lifestyle of its calm-and-collected superintendent.

How others will see it. Bad Education entered the festival circuit in September 2019. Nonetheless, the film remained obscure until its pay television debut on April 25. The HBO-produced "true story" drew positive critical attention, and already has 11K user votes at The user ratings there are 7.2 out of 10, and are consistent across all demographics.

Those who expect Hugh Jackman to play Wolverine yet again will be disappointed. The pacing is slow and the humor is subtle, perhaps too much for some. It is a pleasant surprise that no one seems to care, one way or the other, that the lead character is gay. After all, so was the real-life Tassone. The consensus that the story is good, the script is good, the casting is good, and the moral (crime does not pay) is good. But relatively few people find the movie remarkable.

The biggest beneficiary of the film's success appears to be Viswanathan. The media is always looking for a charismatic young face, and if she is female and Indian-American, so much the better.

How I felt about it. The first order of business when reviewing a biographical film is to learn what is true, and what isn't. Mostly, it is a true story. Gluckin and Tassone did fleece their public school system to the tune of eight figures, a remarkable sum even in a wealthy suburb. Gluckin's son and niece participated in the grift. Tassone had a long-term relationship and a younger boyfriend on the side, set up in a house he had purchased.

Again, the most important matters are correct, but the role of the reporter is exaggerated. Rachel's true-life counterpart reported on circulating rumors, instead of nailing Tassone to the wall with proof of his embezzlement after weeks of methodical effort. But we like her character, and the actress playing her, so it is easy to give them both (and the film itself) a pass. A movie stocked with petty villains can use a heroine.

Ray Romano is unrecognizable here as a school board member who always tries to do the right thing. Hugh Jackman, though, is convincing as the capable and cunning yet shamelessly swindling district superintendent.

Is the movie a drama, or a black comedy? Certainly, it is the latter. This is especially apparent upon a second viewing, when it is clear that Tassone's efforts to keep Gluckin out of prison are a cover-up of his own, similar crimes. Rachel's blank stares at those in the way of her pretend Pulitzer are also entertaining.