Directed By Cory Finley
Starring – Hugh Jackman, Alison Janney, Ray Romano
The Plot – The beloved superintendent (Jackman) of New York’s Roslyn school district and his staff, friends and relatives become the prime suspects in the unfolding of the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history.
Rated TV-MA for mild elements of sex, violence, and adult language.
– Identifiable dialogue. It’s remarkable that Finley didn’t write this film like he did his debut feature, “Thoroughbreds”, because there’s a lot of believability and personality behind every line that each character spouts that really makes this a unique, almost satirical world, that spoofs our very own. Mike Makowsky, who until now has only crafted short or independent films, proves a lot of growth as a writer, painting a vividly surreal picture for each character that goes a long way in understanding who each of them are. It helps that none of the lines ever come across as forced or artificial in their rendering, and in a true story full of factual consistencies, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the real life figures truly did speak this way, for how it fits so smoothly into the sociopathic tendencies that define each of them as manipulators. This not only helps with the characterization, but also maintains the unnerving consistency in the atmosphere that constantly alludes to something being slightly off in a place where everything seems so perfect.
– Chameleon performances. Part of what makes Hugh Jackman, Ray Romano, and Alison Janney so compelling as performers is their ability to immerse themselves in the roles of their characters, to the point where they become nearly indistinguishable because of such dedication. As such is the case in “Bad Education”, as the superb work of the movie’s production make-up and prosthetics is only the first step to a trio of performances that never miss a single beat in their colorful transformations. None are obviously as entrancing as Jackman, who in the prime of his career brings forth another award-deserving turn as Frank Tassone. Jackman’s performance is truly dangerous, because it’s easy to understand and fall in love with him the same way the school community has, but you see the momentum from the deception he persuades, and suddenly charisma is the spell he casts when seedy intentions are on the horizon. Janney and Romano shouldn’t be underscored as well. Janney’s thick Yonkers accent, and Romano’s bumbling demeanor are constant delights, and each offer spell-binding supporting turns that make the most of their limited screen time.
– Storytelling symbolism. Finley once again incorporates enough sentimentality and meaning in the obscure images that he decides to edit in between transitional scenes. Here, objects like a leaky ceiling tile, or an administration trophy, are used as clues in the bigger mystery that we the audience are slowly unveiling. It gives the film incredible replay value, because it allows you to return to see what hints you might have missed when you thought they were nothing but spontaneous instances meant to supplant a certain feel in the story’s setting. The pieces are there all along, but only fit once you know how they’re all tied together, and even if you’re someone who has followed this case endlessly, you will still be riveted by how each angle of focus was there all along, like stacked-up bones making up a body of evidence that condemns those involved.
– Wonderfully paced. “Bad Education” clocks in at an average 103 minutes of running screen time, and with the exception of a first act, which enjoyably takes its time shaping the impact these characters have in the community, the entirety of the film attacks with the kind of eagerness that leaves you drawn in by what unfolds. Like most political scandal films that are similarly structured, the big reveal often comes too late or all at once, leaving the anticipation deposited in one earth-shaking delivery, but with this case, there are a few tiers that elevated the magnitude of this crime, thus giving each act of the screenplay monumental meaning with what unfolds. When the story does get going, the first hour feels like twenty minutes, and the big reveal leads to one of the more satisfyingly controversial climaxes in a scandal film since 1999’s “Election”. I was tested, but never bored with this movie. A testament to true urgency done well with cinematic drama to boiling levels.
– No blemishes. One interesting parallel that the film has within itself on a personal and practical level, is the importance of cosmetics purposes when hiding a deep-seeded blemish. This is obvious in the form of the characters, as Jackman’s character uses plastic surgery and expensive suits in an advantageous effect that is every bit for the community who fall in love with him, as it is for him to hide the corruption buried deep beneath him in favor of a new identity from who he truly is. Each of these are compelling on their own merits when you line them up solo, but when compared to the school’s attention to funding going to a new skywalk, it’s a reflective glance at a society thirsty for aesthetic results before factual ones. One character even points this out, saying “Isn’t that a lot of money for something that is only of cosmetic value?”. It truly is, and both instances stand as table dressing for the meatier meal being chewed beneath public eyes. Sociological mascara for the deceiving.
– Tonally intoxicating. Where some films fail to pull off one consistent flavor of emotional resonance within its story and characters, Finley and “Bad Education” maintain two for the price of one, and allows them to live and breathe simultaneously without one condemning the other. This is definitely a drama first kind of cinematic experience, but what’s got me falling in love with Finley’s direction in these first two films is how he intentionally exaggerates the lunacy in each of his films’ high stakes, and fleshes them out in a way that you can’t help but laugh at the way its characters toe this thin line of moral fiber from one inch to a mile. This allows the film to equally succeed as a dark comedy, speaking volumes to the slice of life approach to its material that is astounding when you consider real people did these real actions. We live in the bubble beyond the screen that keeps us safe from everything transpiring, and therefore the release to laugh is one that is every bit therapeutic as it is assuring that you’re happy you’re anyone but the people featured on the other side.
– Anything but TV. While this film did premiere on HBO at a time when cinemas are currently closed for a worldwide pandemic, it’s easy to see how things could’ve been different if it were given the chance to explore another avenue of media, on the silver screen. It would succeed in such, because the production elevates this from ever feeling like a TV movie-of-the-week, cementing HBO’s legacy once more as this ahead of its realm measure that even in 2020 is unlike anything else on television. First of all, the crisp editing adds meaning in the visual circumference, introducing many practical aesthetics before it shows us a character, to elaborate who they are and what they’ve done. The plodding movements of the camera also preserve the unnerving atmosphere that resonates within a school full of so many liars and secrets. It forces us to spend as much time as possible within these claustrophobic offices before we’re practically begging for a route of escape, and introduces us as a fly on the wall to something bigger than we could’ve ever imagined. The transformation scene in the film’s closing minutes is also superbly realized, toeing the line of fantasy and reality cryptically, until definition comes in the form of contextual clarity.
– Miniscule measurements. The make-up work in “Bad Education” is highly exceptional, but you would never notice it, because the film doesn’t splash it on like other movies to make a point. When you look at a film like last year’s “Bombshell”, you see make-up used to transform Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly, but with Hugh Jackman in this film, it’s used as nothing more than a de-aging tool meant to speak volumes to the character’s cosmetic importance that I previously mentioned. This alone is enough to warrant mention, but when you look at how the make-up changes the longer the film goes on, to define his character’s brush with scandal, you start to appreciate it more for its subtleties. It stretches his face to authenticate more of a natural aging process, giving us our first truthful look at the character that more than an 80 minutes of film to that point didn’t include, and proves that make-up and prosthetics has many levels for its uses that doesn’t always involve a visual transformation before our very eyes.
– Unexplored avenues. Even after nearly two hours of events and character’s that move in and out of frame with no shortage of information, the movie still unfortunately carries with it a feeling of burning questions and unanswered circumstances that definitely could’ve used more time devoted towards it. Almost immediately, the point of view from Janney’s character, or especially the newspaper reporter comes to mind, for the lack of counterpoint that much of the movie persists without, and makes this a one sided ass-kicking contest in a story with many faces. In addition to this, the ending is a bit too clean-cut for me. I could’ve used more emphasis on what certain characters lost, as well as where other characters ended up. With films depicting real life scandals, it’s best to make them so they succeed without having to read the source material, but after this film, I’m left with a mounting lack of information that raises more questions than answers.
– Dramatically flat. If I had one knock to Finley’s direction, it’s in his lack of dramatic flare that resulted during the film’s climatic moments, where coincidence hinders the story’s amplification of intensity that should result from these monumental moments. All conflicts are wrapped up, yes, but they’re wrapped up in a way that doesn’t sizzle the steak before we take a bite, and instead of commanding some unpredictability to what is transpiring, we just kind of wait for these people to be caught, whether from the script’s lack of wiggle room creatively, or an overly-zealous trailer that spoiled a bit too much with its speedy flashes. Because so much of this screenplay allows us to feel this inescapable weight from the heft of stakes it instills from taking something small within a community, and fleshing it out to feel like it has a global appeal, the juice is never worth the squeeze of what takes shape, and while “Bad Education” as a whole is a satisfying watch, its dramatic elements are tardy for class.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+