DVD Review: Bad Education (2019)

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Hugh Jackman invested obvious effort in his portrayal of scandalized politician Gary Hart in 2018’s The Front Runner. He’s similarly committed to his role as Frank Tassone in HBO’s Bad Education, the 2019 feature film chronicling the real-life embezzlement scandal that rocked Long Island’s Rosyln High School in 2004. But just as The Front Runner came up dramatically inert with director Jason Reitman skimming the service rather than digging deep, Bad Education is ultimately another stillborn biopic. But fans of Jackman will want to see it as his understated portrait of an ethically compromised public school superintendent simply can't be missed.

Certainly there’s enough juice here in the real-life account to serve as the basis for a scintillating story. And it's certainly entertaining. Jackman’s efforts to make Tassone—a much-respected teacher at Rosyln before moving up the chain of command—a simultaneously repellent and sympathetic full-bodied figure lend Bad Education some heft. But the screenplay (by Mike Makowsky) doesn’t go much past a standard-issue “stealing is wrong” message. Tassone's assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) first emerges as a freely using school funds to enrich her lavish lifestyle. But soon we learn that everyone at Roslyn seems, at the very least, willing to turn a blind eye toward the corruption.

It's student, as reporter for the school paper, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) who begins poking around at the finer points of Rosyln's budget allocations. Initially tasked with writing a puff piece about the school's long-planned "Skywalk" bridge contraption, it's Tassone who urges her to dig deeper if she wants to make her true mark. As Gluckin's indulgences begin to topple a house of cards, no one pays much attention as Rachel painstakingly puts the pieces together that could ultimately lead to a lot of abruptly-ended careers.

Director Cory Finley doesn’t exhibit the style here that he did in his vastly more thought-provoking feature debut Thoroughbreds (perhaps because he also wrote that one). As female-centric as Thoroughbreds is, Bad Education shortchanges Rachel's story arc. Yes, that gives us more of Jackman's finely-honed characterization. Janney is typically excellent, though doesn't have an abundance of screen time to work with. But Viswanathan, a revelation in the bawdy comedy Blockers (2018), really needed to be the focus here. Thanks to Viswanathan's acting skills, we do glimpse Rachel's slow-growing awareness that she has stumbled into something very important.

Yet director Finely and company wound up making Bad Education primarily a showcase for Jackman. There are many great moments as Jackman's Tassone is gradually revealed to be a seriously compromised and hypocritical individual. But balance between his downfall and Rachel's ascent would've possibly turned Bad Education into something truly remarkable.

HBO Home Entertainment's DVD release includes a handful of featurettes but nothing too substantive. An easy film to recommend if only for Hugh Jackman's reliable excellence and another glimpse at the great actress Geraldine Viswanathan is becoming.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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