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TIFF 2019 Review: Corey Finely's excellent 'Bad Education' tackles worst school embezzle

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival


Comitting crimes to feel like you’re doing something good is the impotence to Corey Finely’s wildly entertaining “Bad Education,” which is based on the 2002 embezzlement scandal that rocked Roslyn High School in Long Island.

A scheme which racked up more than $11.2 million dollars in total damages to the school district, the film is adapted by former student, Mike Makowksy, who witnessed the ordeal first hand and marks something of a unique turn for Finely, whose last film “Thoroughbreds” was an off-beat and strange indie that barely reached a wide audience.

“Bad Education,” on the other hand, is far less polarizing and has the star power to attract eyeballs - and garnered much praise from those attending the Toronto Film Festival - and while “Thoroughbreds” was heavy in fictionalized satire, in his second feature Finely has to site actual sources, resulting in an engaging slow-burn investigative thriller sprinkled with hefty comic touches and represents the type of ace mid-budget adult targeted film missing from the current theatrical marketplace.

Digging deeper into his characters and showing great poise as a rising filmmaker, Finley’s “Bad Education” starts deconstructing this insane narrative from the top with one Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the beloved Roslyn School District superintendent who acts as a miracle worker for overzealous parents and always finds the correct phrasing for inspirational pep talks to moopy students. He’s assisted by Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney who’s terrific with her thick accent) the manager of the business office next door with the pesky school board president Bob Spicer (Ray Romano doing exactly what Ray Romano does) constantly sniffing around.

With his dry cleaned suits, concealer makeup, and somewhat refined demeanor, Frank seems like a schmuck eagerly hiding something; and to his credit, Jackman slips into the role perfectly with his beady eyes, and Charles Dickens novel in hand to showcase how far his sophistication goes. Initially, the film seems a bit mute on the whole conspiracy, but instead focuses on Frank’s mission to get Rosyln number one in the region. He’s got the determination and attitude to make it happen, as students are getting accepted to Ivy league schools at record rates. What could possibly go wrong?

But his advice to an eager school reporter named Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan - excellent) about turning the puff piece she’s writing on a planned school renovation morphs into something much bigger, and the young sleuth begins to unravel an entire can of worms. If anything, “Bad Education” should teach audiences the power of journalism at any and all levels.

So while Rachel is off digging in the trenches (or the archive closet in the school’s basement) things are falling apart at the administrative level, as we learn that Frank has been dipping his hand in the proverbial cookie jar with lavish trips and starting a fling with an old student (Rafael Casal) in Vegas. Meanwhile, Pam has been using the official school credit card to make some pricey home improvements to her house in the Hampton's. Not exactly “official” business if you know what I mean.

Finely has a great time showing the demise and downfall of these buffoons who are in a tug of war with a moral compass. They constantly think they’re doing what’s right for the students, yet are doing more harm than good. It’s equally fun watching Jackman get wound up when pushed into a corner about his illicit activities. The irony being he’s quick to offer advice to those who seek it, but isn’t afraid to stab you in the back when his own flaws are pointed out.

This all culminates in a terrific operatic crescendo that’s tragically poetic in all the best ways, “Bad Education” doesn’t take the easy way out and Finely garner's real mileage out of his cast. Especially Jackman whose more a big Hollywood star than a character actor, and that’s what makes his turn here all the more remarkable.

It doesn’t hurt the script has snappy dialogue and doesn't use its subject matters as a parody of the system. Instead, “Bad Education” showcases how dumb people will find anyway to rationalize their actions, no matter the consequences.

Grade: A-

Bad Education will be released by HBO Films sometime in 2020 and the film was screened as a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

There is currently no trailer for the picture.

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