‘Bad Education’ Looks Stylish, But a Clumsy Understanding Of Its Main Character Does More Harm Than Good

HBO Films

Have you ever stopped for a moment to think about how easy life would be if taglines actually reflected what the experience of watching a film would turn out to be? Ever wondered what you could have done in those two hours you spent watching the latest thing a press blurb dubbed “amazing” when it most certainly was not? How much faster the process of choosing a movie to watch on Netflix would get? “This sucks”, would say one critic. “I would rather eat my entire weight in sand than ever re-watch this again”, would say another. It would be a blissful world to live in indeed.

The pleasure that Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and Pam Glucklin (Allison Janney) get from their lives comes from a much difference source when we meet them in Bad Education. Inspired by a true story made famous by Robert Kolker in a New York Magazine feature, Cory Finley’s latest film tells the story of two well-respected school district workers in Roslyn stealing millions of dollars from the very people they serve daily. When a young student from the school paper, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), takes an interest in the school district’s finances, their carefully built reputations and careers will be put equally at risk as the extent of their corruption is revealed to the public.

Bad Education is not a bad movie per se— in fact, few negative things could be said about its technical aspects. It looks sleek— carefully constructed frames of blue and grey tones giving the film the necessary edge that goes along with its subject matter. It’s also impossible to talk about the film without mentioning its incredibly strong performances; specifically from Hugh Jackman as the equally charming and corrupted school superintendent Frank Tassone and Allison Janney as his colleague and accomplice Pam Gluckin. The promise of getting an explanation as to how and why two well-respected people could have smuggled millions of dollars straight out of their own beloved school’s funds should be enough to keep us invested.

Yet despite an interesting premise and a couple of strong technical points, it is impossible to ignore that the real tagline for the film could have been something along the lines of “Remember that New Yorker article you read on your lunch break and thought was pretty interesting? It’s two hours long now!” or even “Finally, gay people get their forgettable true crime adaptation too!”.

HBO Films

Bringing up Tassone’s sexual orientation in a review of a film about his crimes may seem inappropriate, and rest assured that the script is just as unsure of how to deal with it. On all accounts, Bad Education is a classic retelling of a typically American white-collar crime. We don’t get to know much about the characters beyond a couple of introductory dialogue and broad personality traits. Rachel wants to know the truth about the school’s budget because her father was fired after being involved in a similar scheme (and maybe journalistic passion, too, although the film seems to bring that point up only when it seems convenient). Similarly, we are shown Pam’s family to get a sense of where the money goes: she wants to be the eternal host, the gift that keeps on giving, and giving away credit cards to whoever asks for them is a pretty effective way of getting people’s approval. 

Tassone, on the other hand, is a much bigger mystery. The biggest explanation we get for his actions is in a short angry rant, powered by an especially fired up Jackman, that has him complain that not a single student or parent in the school sees teachers as human beings. This explanation wouldn’t sound so out of place if the film didn’t just spend an hour and a half thoroughly dehumanising the same people it now attempts to defend. The superintendent is just as two-faced as this explanation leads to believe. On one hand, we get introduced to the perfect version of himself he presents to the world: a sophisticated, amiable man, widowed to a wife he still loves dearly, a picture perfect depiction of middle-class excellence. This is opposed to a few scenes of something approaching intimacy. In a restaurant, in a hotel, with his husband or the younger men he cheats on him with, once again what we see is dangerously close to perfection: only this time, he’s the perfect lover.

HBO Films

In a different film, this could have become a starting point for a discussion about the complex feelings associated with living in the closet as a person that is constantly under the spotlight; the crushing pressure to constantly look impeccable and embody white American family values, even when they go against one’s true nature. Here, the exploration of Tassone’s inner life turns out to be muddled at best, and frankly embarrassing at worst, only a few clumsy scenes away from correlating Tassone’s hidden sexuality to his hidden crimes. If the tie-in of sociopathic and homoerotic behaviours made sense in characters like Tom Ripley— written as a creative outlet by a closeted lesbian in 1950s America and adapted on the screen many times after— it feels incredibly out of place in the hands of a twenty-first century satirical director.

This troublesome understanding of the film’s main characters is related to its biggest issue in general: its inability to decide what it wants to be. Is it a straight retelling of the article it is based on or a satirical look into the American school system? Are we supposed to get a deeper understanding of the characters, or are they only meant to be caricatures? Should we care about anything or anyone on screen or are we supposed to be as detached as the film’s cynical jokes prove to be? The lack of answers to these questions leads to a confusing watch that sometimes borders on the offensive, and rarely rises above mediocrity for the rest of its runtime.
The few positive things that Bad Education has going for it aren’t enough to ultimately redeem it. Even an all-star cast, some dynamic editing and compelling visual choices can’t turn this questionable attempt at showing the behind-the-scenes of an embezzlement scandal into a fully fledged narrative. If there ever was proof that a good story doesn’t necessarily make for a quality film, this is it.

Bad Education is available to stream now on HBO. You can access HBO on Hulu with their one week free trial.

by Callie Hardy

Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.

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