"Bad Education" (2019)- Movie Review

Directed by Cory Finley
Written by Mike Makowsky (Based on article by Robert Kolker)
Starring Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney and Geraldine Viswanathan

‘A Captivating Crime Satire’

When it comes to the most shocking school scandals in American history, nothing surpasses the Roslyn District embezzlement. In 2004, New York’s Roslyn High School made front-page headlines when it became embroiled in an enormous theft. A team of student news reporters discovered that their beloved superintendent Frank Tassone had stolen $2.2 million from the school’s funds. Not only did Tassone abuse his power to commit fraud, but he used his charismatic facade to keep it a secret. With its timely themes of corruption, greed and accountability, the story behind the school scandal seems to deserve cinematic treatment. It is surprising then, that, this true story has never been told on the big-screen.

Now, Cory Finley brings the outrageous scandal to the big-screen for the first time in his latest film “Bad Education”. A darkly comic, gripping and riveting social satire, it offers a fascinating look at the aftermath of a financial crime. With his second feature, filmmaker Cory Finley has crafted an authentic account of the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, sharp storytelling and fantastic performances, it is a highly effective satire. Although “Bad Education” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It is unevenly paced, and builds to an ambiguous conclusion that leaves viewers with questions. Nonetheless, it offers engrossing entertainment that will satisfy fans of crime dramas.

Based on actual events, “Bad Education” tells the true story of a school scandal. Hugh Jackman stars in the lead role as Frank Tassone, the renowned superintendent of Roslyn High School. Frank seems to have everything he needs: a high-paid job, adoring student fans and support from staff. However, Frank’s life forever changes when student news reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) uncovers evidence of his involvement in embezzlement. As his fraudulent schemes are publicly exposed, Frank’s seemingly perfect life starts to fall apart.

Director Cory Finley is well-versed in themes of white-collar crime. Ever since he gained critical acclaim with “Thoroughbreds” in 2017, Finley has proven to be a promising filmmaker. His directorial debut “Thoroughbreds” was lauded for its original concept following an adolescent girl that hatches a secret plot to kill her stepfather. With “Bad Education”, however, Finley has crafted his first satire on a school scandal. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to dramatize Frank Tassone’s embezzlement of Roslyn High School, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Finley draws viewers into the life of a sleazy superintendent. From intimate close-ups to suspenseful steadicam shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. It gives the movie a tense and foreboding atmosphere that is reminiscent of crime satires from the 1970’s. Working alongside cinematographer Lyle Vincent, Finley creates a stunning film in which each frame captures the deceiving appearances of scammers. Finley excels at recreating the larceny, and his latest feature is worth watching on HBO for this reason alone.

If stories of deceitful scammers do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Bad Education”. The film is extremely well-written, and offers a scathing critique of the American education system. Mike Makowsky’s adapted screenplay is spectacular, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with compelling characters, witty dialogue and dark humor, the script elevates the movie to another level. Makowsky’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to create amusing scenarios that covey the absurdity of the scandal. In Hollywood, most movies about real-life events are overly solemn and demand to be taken seriously. This often leaves no room for levity and detracts from the quality of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Bad Education”. The film strikes a delicate balance between being funny and serious. Using this ingenious tone, Makowsky creates hilarious situations that poke fun at the scandal. For instance, the funniest scene in the film is when Frank is forced to fire his personal assistant. It’s a sequence that works tremendously due to the combination of sharp dialogue and perfect comic timing of the actors. Through an engaging screenplay, Makowsky keeps viewers engrossed in the world of corrupt educators.

It is hard to not admire the astonishing performances from the cast. Every star gets the chance to shine, but the film is mainly a stunning showcase for its leading man.

Hugh Jackman delivers one of the best performances of his career as Frank Tassone. Jackman has spent most of his career playing charismatic heroes in comic-book films. With “Bad Education”, however, he takes on his most detestable character to date. It is not easy to portray a real-life criminal. It’s a tricky role that requires the actor to tread a fine line between being sympathetic and despicable. However, Jackman pulls it off effortlessly. With captivating expressions, he conveys the charm, cunning and selfish persona of the superintendent that hoodwinked his own school. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of the finest actors working today.

The supporting cast is sensational and also worthy of recognition. Allison Janney is amazing and imbues shades of humanity into Frank’s supportive personal associate Pam Gluckin. Geraldine Viswanathan is fantastic and brings a sense of confidence to the student reporter Rachel Bhargava. And finally, it is hard to not mention Ray Romano. As the jovial school president, he brings hilarious comical relief and persona to the movie.

The final aspect of “Bad Education” that deserves appreciation is the musical score. Michael Abels’ classical score is highly effective. Classical music is tricky to employ in a modern setting, but it works immensely in this movie. It gives the film energy and momentum that is missing from most crime dramas. The operatic music captures Frank Tassone’s downfall, and enhances the entertainment-value of the film.

Although “Bad Education” is undeniably a captivating crime satire, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s one area where the film falters, it is in the pacing department. Finley’s decision to cover Frank Tassone’s closeted gay life is bold and ambitious, but it doesn’t entirely work. It hinders the pacing and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this approach, scenes that depict Frank’s personal relationships are less engaging than the school investigation. Moreover, the film suffers from an ambiguous conclusion. The movie concludes with a dream-like sequence that clashes with the realistic tone established in previous scenes. Instead of bringing the story to a satisfying closure, it simply leaves viewers in a state of confusion. Crime dramas thrive based on the power of their endings, and in this regard “Bad Education” falls short of expectations.

Nevertheless, fans of social satires will definitely enjoy “Bad Education” and so will movie-goers seeking enlightening entertainment. A fabulous piece of filmmaking, it sheds light on a little-known scandal in American history. At a time when embezzlement remains rampant in the U.S. education system, it’s a stirring reminder that the stories of scandalous educators are worth retelling on the big-screen.

3.5/5 stars

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