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Sunday, May 3, 2020

Bad Education (2020)

Variety
called Bad Education "Hugh Jackman's best work of his career," and they're right. It's shocking how just visually slicked-back hair, a suit, and a clean shave can get people to forget about Logan... and Logan. On top of that, this movie was also competing against, at least to me, similar outlandish scandal movies like Adam McKay's The Big Short. Again, it succeeded, but it did it by staying connected to the consequences of what these people did and the viewer's own curiosity about the mechanics of the scandal.

Bad Education is directed by Corley Finley, written by Mike Makowsky, and it's an adaptation of the New York Magazine article by Robert Kokler about school administrators who stole millions from their district. If the theft alone wasn't newsworthy, this being a top district in the country certainly pushed the story to national attention at the time, back in the early 2000s. The administrators are superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney)

It's rare to see school administrators cast in a positive light onscreen, just look at most 80s movies, but this one starts out with Tassone preparing to greet an adoring, thankful community. Michael Abels's score opens with music that's literally angelic. I'm surprised his name didn't pop into my head, after what he did with Jordan Peele's Us (reviewed here). Anyway, Tassone's work life and personal life slowly are revealed to be increasingly more complex than initially believed, and Jackman realizes every moment. A lot of the performance is non-verbal and comes across thanks to his face and his height. On top of that, he's able to go from courteous, and a student or teacher's best friend, to something else entirely, but not in the way you'd expect from Jackman. Maybe I'm off-base because I'm not an actor, but it's like this, calm to wronged and violent (Logan) is easy. Calm to angry, underhanded, but controlled (Tassone) is very hard. And it happens in seconds, successfully.

With Allison Janney, I'd compare her performance in this to the one she gave in I, Tonya. Both great, but I liked this one more. She's playing a much worse person this time around, but she doesn't come off that way. It's probably because Gluckin is a less wound-up person, and that gave Janney more room to breathe. A lot of the funny moments come from her, like when she's teasing Tassone about his diet, with a sandwich. Her chemistry with Jackman is excellent, and it's felt even when they're not in the same scene together, but that's to be expected when they have their own kinder, schoolhouse version of The Devil Wears Prada relationship. It's what makes the movie feel re-watchable, and the writing and directing are complementing that.

So, people going into this movie expecting a tone similar to The Big Short or Vice may have to put something else on right after to get their fix, but they shouldn't walk away disappointed. The scandal itself and the people involved are every bit as engaging as McKay's non-linear storytelling. This, for those who haven't heard of the Roslyn School District before, is the first great mystery movie of 2020. The investigation scenes, led by high school journalist Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) are a lot of fun...although, it helps that a lot of the investigating involves forensic accounting, and I'm also a bookkeeper. If that doesn't do it, the dialogue can. One speech about a chained up race car, chained like school officials are to the demands of students and teachers, has a way of pulling the whole experience together and showcasing Bad Education's greatest strengths.

So, whether you come for the characters or want to follow the money, you're sure to enjoy Bad Education.

4/5
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