Bad Education

 

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Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney shine in Cory Finley’s engaging and slyly sinister comedy-drama.

 

Bad Education

Hugh Jackman and Rafael Casals

  

If you’re being stolen from for years, and you don’t notice, aren’t you at least partially to blame? Bad Education doesn’t outright ask this question, but it does suggest it.

It tells the true story of a financial scandal that rocked a small public school district on Long Island, New York. After evidence of embezzlement comes to light, parents (read: taxpayers) are furious. Investigations are launched, arrests made. Exposés are written in every major tri-state area publication. People go to jail. Justice is served. Cory Finley’s sophomore feature more or less faithfully recounts these events as they happen, and it impresses with the ability to take what appears to be a rather dry and straightforward sequence of events and create an energetic, stylish, and darkly comic narrative.

 

A large part of the film’s success is due to the outstanding cast. Ray Romano is charming as a well-meaning, if bumbling, school board head. Broadway darlings Annaleigh Ashford and Stephen Spinella do believable, transformative work. Relative newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan holds her own against these stars with grace and ardour. But this is the Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney show, and neither will let you forget it. Every scene in which they appear is electric. Each actor oozes charisma and gravitas, taking what could be stereotypical Islander dialect and mannerisms and making them feel organic and fresh. Jackman in particular flirts with betraying his professionalism at times, seemingly unable to help himself from having so much fun as the sleazy, seductive criminal.

 

The sleek and pristine visual style is a wonderful storytelling device. Much like the characters, there is a sense of misguided polish, a false gloss slathered over the screen. Everyone looks nice and proper. Clean-cut. But there’s just something ever so slightly wrong. The blues are too blue, the whites not quite white enough. A hint of grime that only becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds, reflecting the scummy underbelly and twisted sense of humour in the characters that comes to light as their actions do.

 

There are issues. Unlike his strangely compelling and bizarrely unique debut feature Thoroughbreds, Cory Finley does not have a writing credit here. While the visual aesthetic remains the same, his singular, playwriting-informed wit is absent, preventing him from putting his total creative stamp on the picture. Perhaps even more egregious, the story’s conclusion is all but forgone from the first moments. Events and scenes play out exactly as a studied filmgoer would expect, bordering on the predictable. The score is also a tad too much at times, the ironic symphonics subverting the comedic undertones just as often as supporting them.

 

However, these are but small issues in the grander scheme of what the film does right. Bad Education is an engaging and slyly sinister dramedy about greed and the power that comes with manipulation and compulsive control, and one that proves that it is possible to have a sense of humour about embezzlement – so long as you’re in on the joke.

 

CALEB JOHN CUSHING

 

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Rafael Casal, Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford, Ray Romano.

 

Dir Cory Finley, Pro Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Julia Lebedev, Mike Makowsky, Oren Moverman and Eddie Vaisman, Screenplay Mike Makowsky, based on The New York Magazine article ‘The Bad Superintendent’ by Robert Kolker, Ph Lyle Vincent, Pro Des Meredith Lippincott, Ed Louise Ford, Music Michael Abels, Costumes Alex Bovaird.

 

Automatik/Sight Unseen/Slater Hall-HBO Films.

108 mins. USA. 2019. US Rel: 25 April 2020 (TV premiere). No Cert.