In Cory Finley’s new film “Bad Education,” Hugh Jackman stars as the impossibly put-together school superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone. With hair so perfectly jet-black it has to be dyed, an impeccable physique maintained by a diet of activated-charcoal smoothies, and face-skin kept taut via nightly dabbings of undereye ointment, he presents the image of success at all times. He can back it up in the workplace, too — he’s practically the mayor of Long Island’s Roslyn High School, having built them up into the #4 public school district in the state. He knows all the kids by name and they genuinely like him, almost as much as the moms batting their eyelashes at him during their book group meetings for parents. He’d rather keep to himself, though, still pining for his long since deceased wife.
To many outside observers, this man — a consummate professional getting by on a tightly controlled charisma while keeping his private life private — fits the exact same description as Jackman himself. Which is what makes everything that comes next so thrilling, and perhaps the best work of Jackman’s career. Finley sets in motion a series of events that will precipitate a great personal reckoning and moral downfall for the good Dr. Tassone, revealing a weak and craven man hiding just beneath the surface. Accordingly, Jackman’s performance turns into a fearless work of auto-deconstruction, as he explodes his public persona and leaves someone even more engrossingly human in the resulting rubble.
Something’s amiss beneath the placid exteriors of Roslyn High, and yet with the school thriving, nobody would ever notice unless they’re looking for it. The student paper’s cub reporter Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) gets a dry assignment to report on plans for a campus-spanning “skywalk” that would require a lot of money and bring more prestige than actual convenience. So she starts poking around, and quickly finds some rather unusual discrepancies in the school’s financial records. Someone’s got their hand in the kitty, and to really underscore the brash hubris of their greed, they haven’t even gone through the trouble of covering their tracks.
The first domino to fall would be Dr. Tassone’s assistant in charge of business, Pam (Allison Janney, leaning hardest on the Lon Guyland accent but still making it work). Her breakdown and rationalizations after the administration find out that the school’s been funding her home renovations plays like an amuse-bouche of the humiliations to come. Nobody ever came to harm, goes her defense for her actions. More importantly, outing her for these transgressions would cast a harsh negative light on the school, threatening their place in the all-important rankings. That particular distinction, we’re informed, determines the property values in the area, and that’s the entire ballgame as far as the town’s concerned.
As the pointed fingers shift in Frank’s general direction, the fissures in his facade of perfection widen to reveal a full-blown American pathology through which bad people can always explain away their guilt. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky (who lived through the real-life events that inspired this script back in the early ‘00s) burrows into the psychology of a man who’s channeled what should be shame into a form of denial so advanced that it convinces him his crimes are for the greater good. A few peeled-back layers later, at his pathetic and tenderly vulnerable core, he resents that the school board president (Ray Romano) has attained millionaire status while Frank takes a modest salary for the sake of optics. Finley makes his audience feel just enough sympathy for him to understand his mindset — to quote the great philosopher Johnny Rotten, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? — without so much as approaching the point of absolving him.
Finley has a devil of a good time dragging us down along with Frank, tracing the ironies between the school’s positive messaging (it’s Frank who encourages young Rachel to cultivate the journalistic instincts that will ultimately be his undoing) and the negativity behind the scenes. As in his superb debut “Thoroughbreds,” the director takes aim at a repressed subset of the wealthy class convinced that their money insulates them from ethical consideration, as if everything they do is right because they’re rich and not the other way around.
What this film has that Finley’s debut didn’t is Hugh Jackman, one of our last remaining bona fide movie stars and still willing to throw his industry weight behind a risk such as this. Finley did exactly what a director’s supposed to do when he has a buzzy first film; he leveled up, both in terms of his production’s scale and the maturity of his critiques. This is precisely the sort of grown-up mid-budget entertainment that moviegoers spend the summer months clamoring for. The Finley-Makowsky team has woven a knotty intelligence into each step of Frank’s descent into disrepute, and in their cleverest stroke of all, they cast a man known as a charming illusion to cut through the compartmentalization and lies. Jackman shines, teasing us with suggestions of just how deep his performance runs. [B+]