A classic satire comes along every so often to remind me, more than other film genres, that great art can come with a sucker punch to the frontal lobes. Movies such as Network, Nightcrawler, Heathers, and The Lobster remind us that when humans go bad, it’s tragic yet devastatingly entertaining. In 1999, Alexander Payne brought us Election, which on the surface offered us a High School Student Council race, but really showed us how the war between ruthless ambition and morality could destroy the very fabric of society. I consider it a masterpiece and have hungered for more films like it ever since. I’ve waited and waited. Yes, Jojo Rabbit wowed me, but a great satire grounded in the mundane reality of a high school setting has proven elusive. The genre often spells box office poison in this cut and dry storytelling era in which we often find ourselves. Finally, Cory Finley, who brought us the impressive, tonally distinct Thoroughbreds in 2017, has followed it up with Bad Education. It oozes Election’s DNA and announce itself as one of the best films of 2020 along with a career-best performance by Hugh Jackman.
He stars as Frank Tassone, a real life Long Island High School Superintendent, who in 2002 when we first meet him, has brought Rosyln High School into the number 4 position in the country. Everybody loves Frank. He remembers everyone’s names, takes part in an otherwise women’s only book club, pays attention to his students, and eases complaining parents’ worries by allowing their children to take tests again. This, coupled with the fact that so many students get into Ivy League schools and that property values have gone sky high because of his school’s desirability, and no wonder Frank gets a virtual standing ovation wherever he goes. His loyal partner-in-crime, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) acts as his business administrator, and presides over the development of a multi-million dollar Skybridge for the school, which will add to the prestige. Frank and Pam work hard, banter effortlessly, and have the world at their fingertips. Pay close attention, however, and you’ll notice little cracks here and there. It’s called Bad Education for a reason. Things go real bad.
Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, who attended Rosyln High around the time of the film’s events, impressively peels back the onion layers of the story. He beautifully mines suspense out of each little reveal and twist, giving the film a fantastic forward momentum. I knew nothing about the story going in, and won’t spoil any details here, but I haven’t felt this confident in a storyteller’s abilities since Vince Gilligan blazed a trail with Breaking Bad.
Additionally, he has written for a large cast of characters, all of whom have distinctive voices and a chance to pop. While Jackman and Janney do stellar work, (more on them later), Geradline Viswanathan (a hilarious standout from Blockers) beautifully switches gears by giving a smart, tamped down performance as a student journalist with a great B.S. Detector. She answers to Alex Wolff’s Nick, the newspaper editor who only cares about getting into a great college. Wolff, who shined in Hereditary, also surprised me with his ability to inhabit his soul-deprived character. Tony Winner Annaleigh Ashford broke my heart as Gluckin’s naïve niece and co-worker, a person who thinks her tiny issues have caused so much trouble while neglecting to see the big picture problems right in front of her. Ray Romano knocks it out of the park as the head of the school board, a man who has had his own financial success but can’t or won’t acknowledge the nefarious schemes because his school has excelled so much. Rafael Casal plays a former student of Frank’s who didn’t quite live up to his potential. If you think you know Casal from his street-smart writing and acting in Blindspotting, think again. Here’s an actor with true range, making himself nearly unrecognizable by changing his voice and demeanor to effortlessly slip into the skin of this sensitive gay bartender/dancer. Jeremy Shamos stands out as the put upon accountant who Frank plays like a fiddle to keep him from figuring out what’s really happening. I wish Allison Janney had more to do in the second half of the film, but she galvanizes the first half with her fearless characterization of a woman who knows how to bulldoze a conversation to her liking. The accents may be broad, but she, like the rest of the cast, find the specifics of their humanity.
The film, of course, belongs to Jackman as Frank Tassone. With slicked-back hair and sharp suits, he commands any room he enters. Sure he’s relatable lamenting the perpetual charcoal smoothies he drinks for his diet and smooth as he expertly bats off adoring single parents, but there’s also something tightly wound and off about him. His early conversations with Pam feel like romantic comedy banter but the details fly by so fast you’re not really sure what they’re talking about. Stick with it, because Makowsky and Finley know exactly what they’re doing to rope you in and make you hold on tight. As it progresses we see more and more of the real Frank emerging. We experience a touching scene in which Frank awkwardly lets down his guard to share a dance with someone. Moments later, we meet the real Frank and it’s the most naked and raw Jackman has ever been. Another late scene gives Frank the opportunity to bare his true feelings and intentions on an unsuspecting parent, giving us a glimpse into Frank’s motivations, truly ugly but also understandable. It’s clear that Frank has had to perform for people his entire life, as he expertly navigates his image. It’s a wonderfully modulated, scary, yet humane performance. We may not like what Frank does, but it’s easy to put yourself in the shoes of an underpaid, overworked servant to the community.
Finlay and his cinematographer Lyle Vincent keep the film grounded with a realistic, fluorescent, dull sheen. The events may be extraordinary, but they, like Alexander Payne, know how to find life in the ordinary. Composer Michael Abels, who wrote the brilliant scores for Get Out and Us, brings a sense of grandeur to his symphonic cues and the right type of melancholy to the piano pieces. It adds up to a score which supports the dichotomy of Frank’s public persona versus the really troubled man underneath.
Janney’s first line says so much about the themes of this film, “A wise woman once said, it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you got”. We all want nice things in life whether it be a nice place, a comfortable car, exotic travels, a healthy and happy family, to name a few. Sometimes we may ask ourselves what we would compromise in order to have our riches. Are we entitled to them? Do they make us happy? Bad Education, a perfect microcosm of our world today, seems to be saying that it doesn’t matter. Maybe wanting is everything.
Glenn Gaylord’s 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE: Bad Education gets a 50 out of 50. It’s ultimately a queer story about the lengths someone will go to in order to compartmentalize their life. The real Tassone has objected to the inclusion of gay subject matter in the film, dismissing it as superfluous. It’s anything but, and I think he’s simply playing another long con.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Bad Education is available on HBO now.