Hannah Strong


Bad Education – first look review

Hugh Jackman is rotten to the core in Corey Finley's biting black comedy about public school embezzlement.

Hugh Jackman couldn’t be at the world premiere of his new film at TIFF. He’s on the final leg of his world tour in New Zealand, belting out hits from Les Miserables and The Greatest Showman to adoring audiences. So instead, he sent a video message from his iPhone, which director Cory Finley played before the screening of Bad Education.

In it, Jackman apologises for his absence from the stage of a packed stadium. The crowd all appear excited to be part of the video. Jackman, with his glorious white smile and impossible good looks, is Peak Jackman in that moment – the real-life Greatest Showman. This makes his outstanding turn in Bad Education all the more remarkable. It feels like a genuine risk for him not only as an actor, but as a Brand with a capital B.

In 2004, a huge scandal rocked a small school district in New York. Beloved superintendent Dr Francis ‘Frank’ Tassone was arrested on embezzlement charges. He was convicted for stealing $2.2 million from the public school system he was trusted with overseeing, all frittered away on vacations, cosmetic procedures, real estate, and – most scandalous of all – his double life with a male exotic dancer in Las Vegas.

The extent of the total larceny by Tassone and others totalled $11.2 million, although they were only able to bring charges for about $7 million of that. Who better to pen the script than someone close to the subject? Screenwriter Mike Makowsky is a former Roslyn student who remembers the scandal well. His razor-sharp script, teamed with Finley’s knack for depicting stark amorality first glimpsed in 2018’s Thoroughbreds, works wonders for this wild tale of corruption and greed, while Jackman delivers some of his finest work in years.

His Tassone is as slick and jovial as Jackman himself: he runs a book club popular with all the local mothers; he drinks charcoal smoothies (in 2004!); he wears sharp suits; he drives a nice car. His cologne is Hugo Boss, his hair is groomed to perfection – dyed an inky, box-fresh black. Frank Tassone takes pride in his appearance, meticulously crafted to give off a certain image. Together with the school board, Roslyn has become a school district of national note, with parents jostling for places and students moving on to top Ivy League schools. As such, when scandal threatens to erupt, Tassone et al scramble to avoid a full-on PR nightmare, keen to preserve their hard-won reputation.

It’s a story about the lengths people will go to for self-preservation, deliciously mean and as funny as it is outrageous. Tassone rarely loses his cool, approaching oncoming chaos with an unnatural calmness. It’s shocking, and creates a sense of anxiety in the audience, to see someone who is so utterly convinced of their own superiority and cleverness, that they don’t even have a contingency plan in case they get caught. Finley delights in showing sociopathy at its most banal – in Thoroughbreds, it was bloodthirsty teenage girls, in Bad Education, it’s greedy public school administrators who insist their hard work for a thankless job should come with some restitution.

Yet, as much as Tassone is a villain, Finley invites us into his world and offers vital insight into how his mind works. One scene, set to Moby’s ‘In This World’, is a beautifully choreographed set piece which delivers possibly Jackman’s most challenging scene to date: as a man who cannot dance. He would do well to learn from his Bad Education experience and seek out more roles that offer him a chance to flex his dramatic skills, as beneath all the showboating, Jackman is a very good actor, and it’s nice to be reminded of that every once in a while.

Published 9 Sep 2019

Tags: Allison Janney Cory Finley Hugh Jackman Toronto Film Festival

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