A Touch of Class: Finley Explores Famed Embezzlement Scandal
Director Cory Finley revisits one of the education system’s most notorious scandals in Bad Education, an account of the largest embezzlement of public-school funds, revealed in the high profile news story out of 2002 Long Island, New York. The prescient subject matter feels timelier than ever, cementing its continued relevance in similar complex scenarios of privilege and socioeconomic status which graced the recent college admissions scandal involving celebrities like Felicity Huffman and other faded notables, like Lori Loughlin.
Penned by Mike Makowsky (of Reed Morano’s I Think We’re Alone Now, 2018), the material feels like a light Coen Bros. escapade when taking into account the various players, including Superintendent Frank Tassone and district school official Pam Gluckin. Sorrowfully empathetic and also darkly comedic, Finley and Makowsky attempt to convey the human elements which found good people making bad choices, including the marked disparities of parents and children in wealthy school districts and those responsible for educating and babysitting their progeny.
Long Island superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) brought the Roslyn School District to unprecedented prestige. But in 2002, a slip-up involving Gluckin’s son (Jimmy Tatro) brought to light an epic embezzlement scheme which had been going on for a decade. Tassone convinces the schoolboard to engage in an elaborate cover-up, but when a tenacious student’s (Geraldine Viswanathan) research unveils a recent scheme involving the school’s contracts for a new, high-profile Skywalk project, Tassone’s own involvement comes to light, revealing between the two school officials eleven million dollars’ worth of school funds had been embezzled.
Finley’s sophomore directorial outing is on a much grander scale than his celebrated 2017 indie debut Thoroughbreds, and his latest is no less a handsomely assembled production. At the forefront of Bad Education is some unexpected yet formidably potent casting with Hugh Jackman as the closeted Tassone, a vainglorious persona in the midst of a mid-life crisis which sometimes recalls the M.O. of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty (1999). But it’s perhaps the tabloid fodder accompanying Jackman’s own persona which makes his appearance here more striking than ever.
Although it’s not Jackman’s first queer characterization, the dynamics of the closet and relationships of convenience make for interesting commentary, layered in a way not unlike the dizzying complexity of Rock Hudson’s performance in Pillow Talk (1959), for instance. However, it’s yet another subtly commanding turn from Jackman, not unlike his characterization of Gary Hart in the underrated The Front Runner (2018). Allison Janney manages to be equally sympathetic as Gluckin, if at least for two sequences, including when she’s accosted as a ‘sociopath’ by her colleagues and another where she tearfully, bitterly confronts her family in an explanation of her actions.
Other notables include Geraldine Viswanathan as the Roslyn student who breaks the story, a blunt D.A. played by Pat Healey and Annaleigh Ashford as Pam’s opportunistic niece. It’s a rather un-fussily photographed affair, which is surprising considering the previous work of DP Lyle Vincent on Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Girls Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) and The Bad Batch (2016).