Hugh Jackman’s layered performance – probably his finest in a long and varied career – is the main reason to watch this uneven movie, based on a real-life high school embezzlement scheme.
I’ve always loved Hugh Jackman ever since his star-making turn in X-Men, and he’s certainly proven himself to be one of the most enduring stars of screen and stage, a true movie star in an old Hollywood tradition that’s almost extinct these days, when recognisable brands and properties are more important than the actors who star in them. He brings his usual good looks and charisma to the role of Frank Tassone, a much-loved superintendent at Long Island’s Roslyn High School, but this role also gives him a chance to find a new level as an actor, and do what’s probably the most well-rounded character work I’ve seen from him, playing a difficult protagonist with hidden depths.
When we first meet Frank, he projects nothing but the most polished image of professional success, having pushed Roslyn High oh-so close to the very top of the country’s public school rankings. The very epitome of charm, Frank is beloved by his colleagues, students and parents. There’s no shortage of the students’ mothers attempting flirtation and romantic advances that inevitably get rejected, with Frank claiming that he’s still faithful to the memory of his long-dead wife.
When a quiet but eager student reporter named Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) interviews Frank to get some generic soundbites about the construction of a new “sky walk” that’s meant to further boost the school’s image, he encourages her to be a true reporter, thinking beyond a mere puff piece – advice that he’s about to regret very very much. There’s a massive scandal a-brewing: school board discover that Frank’s second-in-command, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), has been embezzling taxpayer funds to the tune of at least $250,000, and creatively editing the paperwork to hide her theft.
The school board members find out about Pam’s shenanigans much earlier than Rachel, but ultimately they all struggle with the dilemma of what to do with the information. Frank manages to convince the board that the ensuing publicity would bury the school’s reputation and affect the property value in the area, and that the best course would be to handle the matter quietly, allowing Pam a chance to pay the money back and retire. Rachel meanwhile is unsure whether going public with the scandal would jeopardise her own future – a line of thinking encouraged by Frank in a scene that reminds you that Jackman can shift between charm and dark side exceptionally well.
For a long while, the movie keeps you guessing about the extent of Frank’s involvement in the embezzlement, while also revealing some hidden truths that in a way echo back to the real-life rumours and murmurs about Jackson’s own personal life; he must have been aware of this when taking on the role so big kudos to him for not backing out. While he dominates the movie, Jackman and Janney make for a wonderful onscreen pairing, bantering with an ease of old colleagues who have each other’s back.
Bad Education at times comes off as aimless and meandering, especially in the first half where you’re not sure what the story is meant to be about. The film is also not completely sure about whether it wants to be a sharp school satire along the lines of Alexander Payne’s Election, or a more straightforward drama; if it was the former I wished its satire had more of a bite. However this story of greed, corruption and a man whose entire life is smoke and mirrors was still a satisfying watch.
P.S. Though the film doesn’t lack humour, by far the funniest moment for me was watching Hugh Jackman, a professional song-and-dance man, play a guy who can only manage an awkward man-shuffle on the dancefloor.
P.P.S. I had no idea that Allison Janney is a six-feet-tall Amazonian goddess!