A couple years ago I had the pleasure of checking out a weird little indie movie that I hadn’t heard much about, and have it absolutely blow me away. Cory Finley’s directorial debut, Thoroughbreds was a movie that hit me like a ton of bricks, and ended up becoming one of my favorite films of the year. I really knew nothing about Finley, and still don’t actually, but this debut was so strong and well-realized that I knew he was a director I’d be keeping my eye on, eager to see whatever project he had lined up next. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Finley was already getting a second feature made, and one that seemed quite different. Bad Education, a story about a corrupt school administrator who embezzled tax-payer money sounded like the type of story that would have made a highly addictive documentary series, but the combined talent of Finley and Hugh Jackman giving what I was led to believe was one of his career best performances got me very excited about the film. A little less so when I saw that it was coming straight to HBO, since they don’t exactly have the greatest track record with original films, but in this time of quarantine I guess there’s really not many other options to distribute your film. And, while it didn’t hit me quite like Thoroughbreds did, Bad Education is still a pretty fun film.
It’s largely the story of a man named Dr. Frank Tassone, a beloved public school superintendent working in a small school district on Long Island. Frank is obsessed with his looks and poise, but has yielded great results for his students, helping his local high school become one of the most successful in the country, sending lots of kids to some of the best schools in the nation. And, as a nice bonus, that leads the neighborhood to become highly sought after, enriching the town. Things seem to be going quite well for Frank and his assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin, until a student named Rachel Bhargava is tasked with writing a puff piece for the school newspaper about a massive new construction project that’s about to be undertaken by the high-school. While looking into it all she begins to find that the bidding process for this whole project was highly suspect, and it ended up going to the firm owned by Gluckin’s son. And, what’s more, it turns out that Gluckin has been using a credit card linked to the school’s finances for all sorts of home improvement and gifts, which eventually gets found out when her idiot son starts making obvious purchases with the card. This gets Gluckin fired, but at Frank’s insistence the truth about her crimes are covered up, fearing what it would do to the district.
Or, at least that’s what he says. Because, as Rachel continues to dig into the shady business practices of the school district she ends up finding a consulting firm that get a staggering amount of money from the school district. And, after looking into it, she finds that that consulting firm doesn’t exist, and it’s just the home of Tassone and his longtime partner Thomas Tuggiero. Frank has been embezzling from the district even more than Gluckin, using the money to enrich himself and his husband, pay for plastic surgery and new suits for himself, and essentially take care of a former-student boyfriend of his that lives in Las Vegas who he’s been carrying an affair on with. Frank tries to intimidate Rachel out of running the story, and the young man running the school paper doesn’t exactly want to draw that much heat either. But, Rachel eventually decides that it’s what she needs to do, at the advice of her father who recently quit his job after an insider trading scandal. So, Rachel publishes the story, the truth comes out, and Frank is found and arrested. He and Gluckin end up going to prison after their crimes are revealed, and a stain is forever left on the school district, along with $11 million in stolen taxpayer money.
Earlier I mentioned that this film didn’t exactly feel much like Thoroughbreds, and while it certainly doesn’t have the same sort of visual aesthetic or ridiculous antics, it’s still pretty clear to see that Finley has an affinity for stories about suburban crime. And, this movie takes that interest to a very grounded and saddening next step. I really enjoyed this film. It’s full of terrific performances, interesting insights, and just a whole lot of frustration at the world at large. Hugh Jackman really is putting in a tremendous performance in the film, making Tassone someone who can vaccinate between easily likable and detestable. Allison Janney also gives another one of her recent great performances, lending some humanity to a character who could so easily just be a one-note villain. Also, I’m a big fan of Ray Romano’s sudden recontextualization as a great character actor. It’s also great seeing Geraldine Viswanathan get another great role, after seeing her in the underrated Blockers from a few years ago. It’s a wonderfully dark little story, which really made me think about public schools in a way I never quite had. The obsession with test scores and college admissions was something that tracked for me, but I’d never really thought about the idea of local real estate folks essentially bribing the school district because they’re then able to get more money for a desirable neighborhood. It’s something I’d never thought about, and which became painfully obvious after watching the film, just a little glimpse into the way that America is quite broken.
And, it’s at the source of that break that Frank Tassone is able to survive. He seems like a relatively decent person. He does seem to care about these kids, and wants to help them. But, he’s also been completely swayed by the promises of powers and riches, and has let whatever part of him that remained good atrophy and slough off in his pursuit of money. I read that when the screenwriter of the film, who was student around the time this story originally broke, started writing the script he assumed that he’s be painting Tassone as a cartoonish villain. But, after learning more about the man, it became a little more complicated. There’s an oft-repeated sentiment that the best villains don’t think that they’re villains. And, that seems true in Frank Tassone. He seems to think that the best thing he can do for these kids is to make the school better. And, the best way for that to happen is if he’s the shining star, the mascot for the school district that draws in talent and money. And, to make money, he had to spend money. Just, not his own money. Because it’s just so easy to fall into the trap of money in this world.
Bad Education was written by Mike Makowsky, directed by Cory Finley, and released by HBO Films, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk