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Hugh Jackman Delivers a Career Best-Performance in Bad Education

4/5 Allison Janneys.

hugh jackman

If there’s one thing I hope we leave this pandemic with, it’s a newfound respect and admiration for the people who educate our children. Now that everyone has spent over a month homeschooling and attempting to wrangle their offspring with varying degrees of success, we’re reminded of just how important it is to have a functioning public school system.

And while it’s easy to laud and celebrate the teachers and administrators that keep our schools running, it’s also important to acknowledge that they’ve done so after decades of slashed budgets, pay cuts, and a complete lack of regard from the government. It’s one of our country’s greatest failings, that the people so influential and important to our development aren’t paid what they’re worth.

In the midst of this reckoning comes Bad Education, the darkly comic true story of the largest public school embezzlement in American history. Directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds), the film centers on school superintendent Dr. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), a beloved administrator whose tireless and devoted work has moved his Long Island school district to the 4th highest ranked in the country.

Tassone is celebrated by students, parents, co-workers, and the entire town for his commitment to his work. Frank is vain, polished, and puts forth an air of competent professionalism, and he is joined by assistant superintendent and confidante Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). Both are committed to making their school number one, but their dreams are derailed when Pam is discovered to have embezzled $250,000 worth of taxpayer money from the school’s coffers.

What follows is an escalating drama of criminal conspiracy, where nearly $11 million dollars is stolen from the school district. But how deep does the crime go, and who is ultimately responsible? Student and school paper reporter Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) starts investigating, unraveling the thread that soon turns into a national scandal.

The film follows Rachel’s POV, uncovering the layers of its characters in step with her reporting. And as each layer is peeled back, we learn more about Frank Tassone. The outwardly irreproachable widower is revealed to be leading secret lives, one of which involves an affair with a former male student turned exotic dancer in Las Vegas.

Hugh Jackman delivers a searing performance that is a showcase for his charm and confidence as well as his dramatic chops. As Frank struggles to keep hold of the rapidly spiraling situation, he is able to turn the tables on the community that trusts him implicitly. Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky (an alumnus of the Roslyn school where the story is set) take pains to show the humanity within its villains.

Jackman and Janney own every scene they’re in, and their chemistry together is undeniable. If there’s one thing I wanted more of in the film, it’s their relationship.

Gluckin and Tassone DO work tirelessly to improve the schools, creating a ripple effect throughout the town. Better schools lead to higher real estate values, boosting the wealth of the entire community. Early in the film, a group of real estate agents visit the school’s offices, where they give Frank a gift basket of chocolates. They’ve made millions off of his hard work, only to give him chocolates that the always dieting Frank cannot eat.

From here, it’s all too easy to see how the scheme escalates from expensing an off-the-books dinner to spending lavishly on beachfront homes, luxury cars, and international vacations. And as long as the school rises in ranks, and the kids get accepted to Ivy League schools, no one cares that the ceilings are crumbling.

Bad Education is an apt look at America’s burning desire for the appearance of the success, and the lengths to which we will go to achieve it.

(image: HBO)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. She currently lives in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband and two poorly behaved rescue dogs. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.