The key takeaway from Cory Finley’s sophomore feature “Bad Education” has to be the superlative performance by Hugh Jackman. Coming in fresh from his Black Comedy stint in the brilliant ‘Thoroughbreds (2017)‘, Corey handles a true crime story with a tonally muxed yet sensitive touch. Making it almost impossible for the viewers to take a moral stand with his proceedings. By both humanizing and demonizing the central character, he ensures a kind of intrigue that is hard to come by. So, even when he struggles a bit with the tone of the film, the central dilemma of choosing sides keeps it going in an unpredictable direction.
“Bad Education” begins with an elaborate scene that shows us this rhythmic ritual that Frank Tassone (played by Jackman) forgoes before going up on a stage. His polished persona, spiffy suits, and charismatic personality tell us that he likes to look pretty. In fact, it is this trait of perfectionism in him that both bring him the success he has enjoyed and the debacle he is about to face. For the uninitiated, this is where you log-off from this review and come back after you see the film. Since, this a true crime story, it is only viable to discuss the origin which came out of the fucked up American School system that witnessed the biggest fraud some 20 years ago.
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As the superintendent of New York’s Roslyn School District in the 90s and early 2000s, Frank Tassone was a messiah. Not only was he the supreme figure in the ascent of the Roslyn School as one of the best public schools in the country, he knew almost every teacher who taught there, every parent whose ward studied there by their name and every child along with their selective by heart. The system worshipped him and the community that ran the schools enjoyed their high cash flow as the rise of the school also brought a rise in real-estate of the area.
This is until a clever, young student Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) finds a literal crack in the school system. While working on a piece for the school newspaper, Rachel slowly starts uncovering a masked scheme plotted by Frank and his associate Pam’s (Allison) with years of mutual allegiance. They have been using fraudulent contracting firm names to churn out some quick buck for themselves. While Pam has been especially particular about all the places she spends her money at, there’s always the fool’s hard luck that comes in the way.
Sooner than later she is roped in for fraud and the entire system gets on their toe. Frank somehow manages to slide the case under the rug because a really important forthcoming event could be hampered due to the news breaking out. Pam isn’t very pleased with her dismissal and the way Frank has reacted to the entire thing. What happens next forms the crux of “Bad Education.”
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First things first, this is a great film to watch to really understand how systematic lying works. That is, it becomes such a huge part of a person’s existence that they eventually stop believing that it’s a lie in the first place. Frank Tassone’s character is never portrayed as a monster. In all it’s actuality – he isn’t. However, Corey cleverly plots the entire thread of reveals in a way that makes you both care for him and also make him seem despicable. For instance, there’s a scene where you see him craving for carbs and he bites into Pam’s sandwich. The moment established the duo as friends. Soon after we see Pam getting the hammer where Frank doesn’t help her out because he wishes to keep continuing to believe that he is innocent and Pam’s not. This is a tricky balance Corey maintains.
Corey always keeps you on the edge by making sure that a roll-over ball is thrown at you after the other. Frank did what he did because the kind of perfection he brings to his role needs him to be likable. This part makes us understand why he would go on such a strict regime and get the botox surgery. To cancel this out the director plots him as a sort of sexual deviant who is hiding things in his life to maintain an outlook of being likable. Similarly, he is portrayed as a person who charms everyone around by making them feel good about themselves but is a big hypocrite than one can imagine. He is also someone who you would really acknowledge for his peace of mind (seeing how he was previously a teacher responsible for the betterment of a thousand lives) but then he also goes ahead to do what is deemed a crime.
There are so many other instances where the director plays with your idea of Frank and what he is in actuality. This is where “Bad Education” foreshadows the traditional ‘true-crime’ genre and becomes a truly exhilarating drama sprinkled with moments of pure black comedic grace. Look out for the scene where Jackman talks about a race car to a small kid with a snotty mother. However, having said that, the film works entirely because Hugh Jackman is so bloody good as Frank Tassone. This is probably his best outing as an actor since Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” and the actor is in complete control of his craft even when the uneven tonal inconsistency hinders the story. He plays the victim with a criminal tic and there’s no way you will not vouch for him.