One of the more beautiful things about being an American is that it’s easy to justify your own success — at least to yourself. This is the land of opportunity, and people are taught from an early age that they get what they deserve, and they deserve what they get; if they weren’t, the injustice of it all might spoil the fun. You don’t necessarily have to earn your good fortune, you just have to believe you’re entitled to it. Needless to say, we are up to that challenge! And we’ll do whatever it takes to keep everything in its right place.
With that in mind, it’s strange that, as Americans, we still tell ourselves that corruption is usually a symptom of greed, as opposed (or in addition) to something that happens when people can’t afford to question their own worth. It’s a red, white, and blue twist on a universal kind of perceptual asymmetry: When you do something wrong, you think of an excuse — when someone else does something wrong, you think of a motive. The incredible magic trick of Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” a diabolically smart true-life crime drama that stars Hugh Jackman in his best performance since “The Prestige,” is how it manages to balance that asymmetry in the most savage and softhearted of ways, inviting sympathy for the devil even after it convinces you why he should go to hell.
Heavy with poisoned humor and as panoramic as Finley’s “Thoroughbreds” was laser-focused, “Bad Education” is in no hurry to reveal the full picture; watching the first hour of the movie, it’s hard to imagine how this seemingly benign story of suburban malfeasance could possibly explode into the biggest embezzlement scandal in the history of the American school system. But the pieces are there from the moment the film starts, buried just under the sand. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky — whose script is a well-calculated masterclass in narrative economy — takes us back to the Long Island high school where he was a student in 2002.
From the looks of things, that seemed like a great time to go there. Facebook hasn’t been invented yet, college early-admission rates are soaring, and the cash-flush administration is about to pass a budget that allocates $7.5 million for a useless but presumably cool-looking “skybridge.” They’ve earned it. When “Bad Education” begins, Roslyn, New York, is the number-four school district in the entire country, and much of the credit for that belongs to the man, the myth, the legend — Dr. Frank Tassone (Jackman).
It’s rare to see people react to a superintendent like he’s — let’s go with a 2002-appropriate reference — one of the All-American Rejects, but it’s basically pandemonium whenever this guy appears before the PTA. And can you blame them? This is the guy who’s going to get their kids into Yale, even if he has to write all their recommendations himself (Frank never forgets a student). He’ll grant your son extra time on a test if you ask him nicely, he’ll join you for an extracurricular discussion about Dickens at an otherwise all-moms book club, and he won’t even embarrass you when you try to kiss him in the kitchen after everyone else has gone home. Besides, any man that handsome — he’s a dead ringer for P.T. Barnum! — is probably used to being flirted with by now, and there’s a tantalizing layer of sadness beneath that perfect head of slicked-back hair. Frank has been a widower for as long as anyone can remember, but he’s still never seen without his wedding ring.
This may not sound like a particularly engaging world, and “Bad Education” resists the temptation to sex it up for the sake of things, but Finley’s rigid compositions and Lyle Vincent’s gliding camera moves galvanize Frank’s administrative fiefdom with a sense of absolute purpose. The office is a well-oiled machine. Frank and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (an excellent Allison Janney, as if there’s any other kind) are a perfect twosome, even if she tantalizes him with the carbs she’s sworn off. Even the millionaire school board president (Ray Romano) is thrilled. God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world.
Except, it isn’t. And it’s not the leak in the high school’s hallway ceiling. Secret lives and brazen incongruities abound. In a film where even the most innocent scenes crackle with nervous energy and even frustrated erotic tension, a chance Las Vegas encounter between Frank and an old student (Rafael Casal) is electric with a where-else-could-this-be-going intensity. Your first inclination will probably be to pity Frank for feeling like he needs to live in the closet. Is this the mask that always seems like it’s about to slip off his face? Did his wife know when she was alive?
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, an intrepid student reporter (“Blockers” and “Hala” actress Geraldine Viswanathan, continuing to strike the right balance in every part she plays), is writing a story about the skybridge. That wouldn’t be a problem if Frank hadn’t encouraged her realize her full potential and not settle for a puff piece; it wouldn’t be a problem if Pam’s idiot son (hopelessly typecast “American Vandal” star Jimmy Tatro) hadn’t bought hardware supplies on the corporate card she’s been using to steal money from the school for years. Janney, who affects a hard Long Island accent that resists parody even during her funniest scenes, affects the part of a wounded lioness; survival is top priority, but it’s not that simple. Pam isn’t a sociopath, just someone with a warped perception of what’s best for everyone. And she’s about to be the victim of a generational reckoning that she never thought necessary.
She isn’t the only one. “Bad Education” always finds its way back to Frank, but Makowsky’s patient script has a knack for catching the superintendent unawares. Here is someone who doesn’t have the good sense to realize that he’s the main character of a movie; someone who thinks that he’s always just outside the eye of the storm. That misperception gives Jackman the space needed to be life-sized in a way that his “bigger” roles seldom have.
This is the most human performance he’s ever given, wrapped in translucent vanity and cut with finely sliced layers of doubt and denial. Whether locked in an oppressive close-up (the vibrating film stock reacting to even the most imperceptible muscle twitch) or trying to wrestle back control of Frank’s domain, Jackman always threads the needle between shock and showmanship. Through him, Frank seems both innocent and guilty at all times, and the actions he’s able to justify (good optics sometimes require bad choices!) steer him right into his blind spots. Early in the film, Frank tells a struggling lower schooler that he was also bad at math, and now look at him: He’s the guy who designs the math curriculum. The tragic thing about Frank — and the most brilliant thing about “Bad Education” — is that he honestly doesn’t understand why that might not add up.
“Bad Education” has some blind spots of its own, not least of which is a reluctance to dig into Frank’s stunted desire for upward mobility. He doesn’t want to be richer, but he still resents the fact that he makes a little bit more than a teacher’s salary while his boss is a multimillionaire; affluent local parents lean on Frank like every test their kids take is a matter of life and death, and they don’t even bother to say thank you once the college acceptance letters go out. “Bad Education” is appreciably embittered about teachers and on the school administrator’s behalf, but the film is doing so many different things — and juggling enough different tones to make Bong Joon-ho blush — that it has to squeeze the distance between its peaks and valleys. Michael Abels’ jangly, effective score sounds like a malfunctioning factory assembly line, and the disorder is such that Finley can’t spare the extra moment he needs to explore the relationship between the underpaid faculty and the wealthy community they serve.
However disappointing it might be that “Bad Education” is too delicate (and true) to really go wild and let Finley indulge in the flamboyance that made “Thoroughbreds” such a wicked treat, this is a young director who can see the whole chess game 20 moves in advance. Whatever compromises he makes are excused and then some by a remarkable third-act scene that defies every rule about conventional filmmaking — a wordless and shockingly moving dance number so human and desperate that it makes you take all your own judgments with a grain of salt. The “Nightshift” sequence from Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” may never be equalled, but Finley comes awfully close. Dr. Frank Tassone deserves what he gets, but — for at least one perfect moment — we’re all invited to wonder if he truly gets what he deserves.
“Bad Education” premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.