Published on May 4th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
HBOs Bad Education, starring Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney and Ray Romano, is an offbeat, yet, highly successful character study about a public school embezzlement scandal.
Despite its eye-catching title, Bad Education is about an environment of excellent education. The evil-doers are not educators at all; they are administrators, gatekeepers, reputation managers. They facilitate the excellence in education by being in the business of pedigree. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) waltzes into school like an A-lister, glad-handing the board members whose property values have soared because he has elevated Roslyn High to the #4 public school in America. However, he is characterized by an unquenchable thirst for more. “It’d be better if that balloon was shaped like a one…” he bemoans, as a kind of performance of humility, a quasi self-effacement that, to the audience, serves as a brilliantly transparent way of illustrating deep-seeded ego.
A broader irony is also revealed in the film’s opening minutes; one which the culpable members of this quaint little slice of American crime take advantage of. Education’s goodness or badness is a very nuanced metric, being entirely dependant on the socio-economic framework surrounding it. If quality families send their kids there, and they get into good schools then they’ll establish a certain reputation which then leads to property values increasing and economic growth and that just attracts even better, more affluent families, which then attracts even more acceptance letters from even better schools…you get the idea. Quality education is built on a façade of trust, of faith in the salt-of-the-Earth, American ethic. This provides a perfect breeding ground for corruption, lies, and greed. Because nobody cares if you cook the books as long as the community is thriving. Thus, the very bad education is ultimately good.
That is, until the crime is in jeopardy of going public, in which case, reputation is the real currency at stake. What makes Cory Finley’s film engaging and successful is that it soaks up its setting, embodies it, reveals the stale, ugliness that lies beneath the hellos and handshakes and fruit baskets. Most of the characters are completely selfish, even the ones who fuss and condemn the thousands of dollars of embezzlement. The most amusing scene is also the film’s most sobering: Frank Tassone, guilty in his own right and attempting to avoid further exposure of his own crimes, convinces the board to quietly dismiss Pam (Alison Janney), the budget manager who has been privately caught syphoning off money from the school’s budget and inventing fake invoices to cover it up. They do not wish to risk the reputation of their school, their community; the do not want to jeopardize their chance at reaching that coveted #1 spot. They enjoy the view from the top. So they awkwardly cram into Pam’s office and collectively cover up their duplicitousness with a fake concern for her mental health. “You have a serious problem and we’re worried about you,” says one of the board members. The scene oozes with an uncanny feeling of hypocrisy. Imagine an episode of Intervention hosted in a crack house.
The film, overall, picks up the offbeat mantle of a Coen Brothers or an Alexander Payne and runs with it. The film looks (sharply and purposely) bland. The characters tesselate from interacting with each other in very wholesome and quaint ways to being downright nasty, vulgar, and vindictive. That juxtaposition would seem wonky if it weren’t for a very cogent tone that reigns it in and a screenplay that does all the little things. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky never loses sight of the minutia of successful characterization, populating the film with a series of small yet incredibly insightful moments that reveal Frank and Pam’s ability to not only lie through their teeth, but also downplay the severity of those lies, to the point of justification. For example, Frank fusses over winkle concealer and has plastic surgery performed to, of all places, the back of his ear. His obsession with beauty cuts to the core of his character, which is patently two-faced—he wears mask of humility that thinly disguises his rampant ego. His sexuality is another mask that he wears, hiding away his homosexuality from the public yet making up for it by indulging his ego through an affair he beings with a former student.
This kind of character study is on the film’s mind, despite the investigative-procedural structure. The film’s ending underscores this beautifully. Without spoiling anything, I will note that the characters seem to learn nothing. Crimes go punished but lessons aren’t necessarily learned. Pam and Frank cannot escape the holes their egos have dug for them; in their minds it was more than a victimless crime, it was collateral damage for a public service. The film taps into a very prescient, very American idea of self-involvement and narcissistic denial. They just assume nobody will catch them because everything appears good and what they do appears good and they appear to be good people.
As far as critiques, I have only a few minor nits to pick. As mentioned earlier, the film inhabits a very procedural exoskeleton, mainly through the character of Rachel, a student at Roslyn with an insatiable appetite for the truth. Her character is slightly thin in that regard; the film clearly needed a vessel through which it could unspool its yarn. On that note, the film doesn’t quite strike a perfect balance between procedural and character study, sometimes awkwardly switching back and forth from the two. It doesn’t get remotely jarring enough to undercut the film’s compelling story. And though they don’t click perfectly, the film finds moments in which what is signified through its careful character study coalesces with the investigative scenes, replacing its ethos of procedure to a pathos of inevitability. And as far as character studies go, this one stubbornly focuses its gaze on Frank, which leaves Pam on the fringes as the narrative progresses. Considering Janney’s brilliant performance, it would’ve been satisfying to give her character a little more to do after the first act.
At the end of the day, those flaws impact the film’s overall poignance very little. This is a very pithy effort that finds great substance in material that could very easily come across as paltry and innocuous. Finley and Makowski find very dimensional characters within this true story and the performances bring them to life so that they not only carry the film but elevate it from more than just a quirky procedural. Though the subject matter may seem a little too light and breezy to be memorable, Bad Education boasts a sophistication and a wisdom that makes it a well-rounded and rewarding experience.