When is satire not satire? When it’s simply reality. The real world is beyond parody, and apparently has been for almost 20 years (at least), because Bad Education is set in 2002–3, and it’s a true story, and how else can you look at it except as a laugh-until-you-cry kind of dramedy burlesque?
There might also be a creamy dollop of the unrepentant narcissism of the criminal sociopath coursing through this tasty yet terrifying stew about the endless grift that passes for an economy in America. The slick magnetism of its conscience-free con man sucks you in, makes you doubt your own appalled reactions to his misdeeds: But he seemed like such a great guy!
This is certainly helped by the fact that he is portrayed by Hugh Jackman (Missing Link, The Front Runner) in what might be the performance of his career so far. Yes, the devastating, deceptive allure; yes, the seductive force of personality; yes, the playing-with-fire arrogance. But what Jackman does here is intensely layered in piles of meta, from how he plays with ubiquitous fantasies about hot teachers to how he cheekily toys with his own public persona and rumors related to it. This is the work of an actor at the peak of his powers as well as the peak of his not-giving-a-fuck.
And then there are the wider applications of this tale for America today, two decades on, now that even unmagnetic sociopaths are succeeding to wild degrees. This is a portrait about how just about everything in America is broken, even the stuff that looks like it’s working great. Because when things are going well (or seem to be), no one asks questions that need to be asked. And by the time you realize things aren’t going well, it might be too late to fix it.
Things are going well in the public schools in Roslyn on Long Island, a well-off suburb of New York City. Former English teacher, now district superintendent Frank Tassone (Jackman) is the bon vivant who charms the pants off the student moms — not literally, though they wish he would — remembers all the teachers in the district in flattering ways, and simply makes everyone he talks to feel like the center of attention. With the help of financial whiz Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney [Ma, I, Tonya] OMG), the district budgets are hearty and healthy, enough so that the high school is about to indulge in a white-elephant “skybridge” that the kids are all looking forward to, or so we’re told by the adults. Seniors go on to Ivy League schools, property values are up — because “as far as real estate, especially Long Island, a town is only as good as its public school system” — and everyone is happy.
But then a junior-year journalist on the Roslyn High paper — played by our latest goddamn absolute treasure, Geraldine Viswanathan (Blockers) — starts poking around the skybridge project, and stumbles across what looks like some financial irregularities in the district budget. Just as Pam’s son (Jimmy Tatro: 22 Jump Street, Grown Ups 2) might have accidentally, because he’s an idiot, misused a district credit card that, to be fair, he never should have had in the first place.
Director Cory Finley — with his second film after the bad-teen-girls underbaked satire-not-satire Thoroughbreds — and screenwriter Mike Makowsky have a ball with the ugly beauty of the not-satire of the details of the story. But they have also brilliantly structured Bad Education to be endlessly gripping and horrifically compelling, like a mystery thriller with unexpected reveals at every turn. The film’s evocation of its early 2000s suburban New York setting is spot on — the Lawn Guyland is strong here — and its constant seesawing between who gets to coast in the world, and who doesn’t, is piercingly perceptive. Goofball large adult sons and diligent yet reticent teenaged girls are one big contrast. Big fish in little ponds hopped up on their own importance and helicopter parents advocating for their doltish children are another.
There is a lot going on in Bad Education, and remarkably, it all hangs together with the same smooth poise as Frank Tassone himself. And with infinitely more integrity.
first viewed during the 63rd BFI London Film Festival