The HBO Film Bad Education is a very funny movie that also dabbles in pathos. It is a crime movie without violence or heist scenes, instead its mostly about the creeping feeling of dread as idealistic education administrators have their pristine suburban existence shattered. It also tweaks the high school movie formula where a teenager learns that the grown-up world is complicated. Its a zippy, profound and darkly amusing experience that shows how easy it is to twist a system if no one is watching because as long as status stays high, nobody will look too closely for cracks.
Frank (Hugh Jackman) is the superintendent who has great track record in New York's Roslyn school district which includes the 4th ranked best high school in America. A student, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), arrives to interview him about an impending high school construction add on of a large and very expensive skybridge. She needs a quote for her high school paper, saying it is a puff piece story but, ever the educator, Frank tells her that it is only a puff piece if she makes it one. So, Rachel digs deeper and what unravels is a web of deceit and fake payments for years. Frank ends up blaming his associate, Pam (Allison Janney), but the cavalcade of misappropriated funds coming from her office is only the beginning of a larger scam going on underneath the noses of everyone, including school board member and upstanding citizen Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), who can’t believe his friend and colleague Frank let this happen.
Jackman as Frank gives a great performance although his Jersey accent seems to waver a bit. Frank goes from a seemingly meek administrator with a love of education to a crazed guy who refuses to admit wrongdoing. Yet still with a love for education. This culminates in a scene where a grade schooler shows up at his office after all of the chaos has gone down and Frank goes off on a rant when the kid can’t pronounce “accelerate” showing the stress collapsing Frank’s mind. At the start of the movie he is almost saintly and acting aghast when it is found out that Pam is stealing cash, but as more secrets about Frank’s life are revealed, he shows darker layers and extreme greed. He is being buried alive underneath all his dishonesty, but he sees it as perfectly acceptable and for a greater cause.
Pam ends up taking the brunt of the anger when the financial malfeasance is discovered. Janney can make even the smallest moment amusing, like when she is concentrating on deleting statements from an electronic spreadsheet and is completely shocked when a janitor walks by. When Pam is being interviewed by the student reporter she speaks directly into the recorder with banalities about how important the skybridge is for the school. Her breakdown scene with her family when she admits she took the cash is very hard hitting.
Viswanathan as the student who finds the trail of money plays things low key as Rachel is genuinely inspired by her talk with Frank, which leads to her finding out all the horrible secrets he has been keeping. She is tenacious for a student reporter and even the student paper editor tells her to let it go because Frank is writing him a college recommendation letter. One of the movie’s funniest, briefest bits is when she confronts a source that has gotten cash for years and inadvertently runs into Frank outside the door and her reaction to seeing him is fantastic. The representative of the community is via Romano’s Big Bob, and he seems to be willing to let the cash stealing slide as long as it benefits the neighbourhood directly with prestige and more glowing recommendations for their school.
The music by Michael Abels has an operatic, sweeping quality, like something out of a bombastic tragedy, which is contrasted nicely with the mundane office suburban settings. Also, the credits roll over the song “White Flag” by Dido which has a sympathetic feel for all the criminal shenanigans that went on. This sympathy for the mass embezzlement is found in Frank’s speech to Big Bob where he says that by putting on a façade of wealth, he was creating a vision of a more prosperous city where everyone’s lives improved. The school was ranked higher, the kids got a better post-secondary education, and property values went up. His stealing resources started small, at first 20 bucks for lunch, but it kept going up telling himself that spending thousands of dollars on dry cleaning is maintaining an image for the benefit of everyone. Frank kind of makes a point but it also shows how much Frank can talk himself and others into just about anything.
Directed by Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) the movie has cinematic scope even though it is basically people just talking in offices. It looks dynamic, especially when Frank confronts Pam with a cadre of office workers, or the final scene that puts the viewer inside Frank’s head. Bad Education is a grimly amusing peek underneath a real-life scam that went on for years without anyone noticing it because everything was seemingly going great. But even with a perfect image to the outside world, there was a sinister rot underneath that inevitably bubbled to the surface.
Director: Cory Finley
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Ray Romano and Welker White