At the center of “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” lies a provocative question: What the hell? In 2019, the FBI investigation that put Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and dozens of other wealthy parents in jail for bribing prestigious universities to admit their children became a media spectacle. It also showcased a bizarre phenomenon unique to the wealthiest classes, in which the practical route to success isn’t as attractive as the cost of a shortcut.
Director Chris Smith, who previously documented a peculiar form of American exploitation with his look at the mangled “Fyre” music festival, seems uniquely suited to unearthing some answers. His compelling and sometimes overwrought follow-up presents an infuriating breakdown of the corrosive forces that allow affluent people to buy their way into institutions of higher learning. “Operation Varsity Blues” provides more than proof that the American educational system is broken; it shows how many people want it to stay that way.
One of them is Rick Singer, the slimy “independent college counselor” who weaseled his way into countless lives, then turned on them as an FBI informant. Smith uses a fascinating blend of real FBI wiretapping conversations and reenactments to show the meticulous way that Singer talked his way into his ill-fated gigs. He even casts a movie star, Matthew Modine, to embody Singer’s predatory nature. By terrifying parents desperate to send their kids to the most prestigious schools in the country, he convinced them that their only path was through their pocketbook. As various informative talking heads explain, Ivy League schools like Harvard will easily hold the door for mega-rich offspring of the Jared Kushner variety, with price tags in the $45 million range.
That’s the “backdoor.” Singer offered the relative bargain-basement known as the “side door,” by infiltrating school athletic clubs and bribing the coaches into holding slots for decidedly non-athletic students. For a mere high-seven figures, Loughlin’s daughter went from an Instagram influencer with little interest in academics to an apparent rowing superstar despite no experience in the sport. Bingo! Instant enrollment at USC.
Much of “Operation Varsity Blues” plays out as a minimalist thriller, with Singer played by Modine with a psychopathic stare, as he paces his palatial Los Angeles home on the phone with countless anxious parents and pinpoints their anxieties. The operatic nature of the proceedings unfolds like a watered-down version of the Hugh Jackman embezzlement drama “Bad Education,” with the tragic-comic anti-hero so devoted to his process that he practically believes he’s a saint. With the frantic score (co-written by Atticus Ross) pulsating through each scene, Smith zings from these hyper-faithful reenactments to cheesy visuals of a silent FBI agent listening to every word, which sometimes has the effect of oversimplifying the events at hand.
After all, there was more to this story than a series of tense phone calls. Fortunately, the investigators, college admissions experts, and expert journalists who fill in the blanks help ground the movie in a genuine quest for understanding how this exploitive situation became so widespread. The juxtaposition of the more traditional documentary foundation with its overstylized reenactments has the fascinating effect of recognizing the weird-but-true nature of this story while explaining that, yes, it really did happen this way.
Singer’s a remarkable old-school huckster, the sort of hyper-energetic con man that American storytellers have been working through at least since “The Music Man.” Described as a “California beach bum” who radiates an absurd degree of confidence at every turn, the character comes across as a tragic example of can-do spirit gone awry. Having failed at pitching a reality show or developing some measure of companionship — at least, according to the testimony of one former colleague who says he hit on her — Singer throws himself into a constant hustle. It’s no surprise that once the FBI ensnares him with its recordings, he’s just as eager to do their bidding.
The reenactments don’t always convince: There’s an inherent disconnect to the off-the-cuff dialogue of the transcripts and the rehearsed nature of their delivery by professional actors. But it’s still a clever vessel for showing how Singer snaked his way into his clients’ personal lives to accept his services. From convincing parents to get their kids to play dumb for extra time on their SATs, to making sure the applicants don’t snitch, he works every angle to keep his system afloat. Meanwhile, he maintains a robust slate of collaborators in the academic world, with desperate figures including a Yale soccer coach all too eager to score some extra dough, and victims like Stanford sailing coach John Vademoer, one of the only figures directly involved in the scandal who appears in the movie.
Vademoer, who said he was baffled to receive seven-figure donations to the school, comes across as a credible naif who was suckered into Singer’s scheme. But even though the judge who sentenced Vademoer acknowledged his relative innocence, the school that once employed the man refused to back him up. That’s the most astounding takeaway that makes “Operation Varsity Blues” more timely than its sensationalist hook might suggest: The villains of this story have yet to face a complete reckoning. For all his culpability, Singer himself has suffered the fewest consequences, by turning on his clients and remaining free even as he faces pending charges. His story might not be over yet, but “Operation Varsity Blues” suggests that even if Singer goes down, the problem he exploited shows no sign of letting up.
“Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” is streaming on Netflix starting Wednesday, March 17.