by Kayla McCulloch on Apr 30, 2020

When St. Louis native Cory Finley’s sophomore feature Bad Education was bought by HBO in the wake of its premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, many critics expressed dismay at the thought of something so cinematic being denied a proper theatrical run. Nearly eight months later, the film’s HBO debut couldn’t have come at a better time. With most movie theaters closed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the once-steady stream of new releases slowing to a trickle, Finley’s Thoroughbreds (2017) follow-up has come to save homebound moviegoers from a crop of $20 rentals and streaming originals (at least for a couple of hours). There’s a little something for everyone: a twisty true-crime story, plenty of dark comedy, a slew of solid performances, and some sleek direction that makes it all go down easy. School might be out early this year, but Bad Education will keep the spirit alive well into the summer.

Based on a New York magazine article by Robert Kolker, screenwriter Mike Makowsky dramatizes the largest public-school embezzlement scandal in American history, setting the story primarily in the halls of a Long Island high school during the early 2000s. Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and business administrator Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) — somewhat sophomoric in their own right — would probably argue that “embezzlement” is the wrong word for their actions. What’s the harm in charging the occasional bagel (or home-improvement project) to the district credit card? Surely Tassone’s decades of dedication to local schools, his unwavering commitment to the students, and his earnest go-get-’em attitude has to counterbalance such minor wrongdoings (in his eyes, at least).

As the viewer gets to know Tassone, it becomes clear that he is a man incapable of resisting temptation: The urge to break the rules of his diet and eat some carbs, the desire to enter into affairs with people other than his partner, the impulse to spend district money like it’s his own personal checking account. On the surface, he’s a confident and charming leader, always encouraging the high-schoolers to reach their full potential. Underneath, he’s obviously unstable and incredibly weak. Ironically, this dichotomy is inevitably what sends student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) down the paper trail that leads straight to his and Gluckin’s doors. When Rachel appears outside Gluckin’s empty office one afternoon, Tassone invites her to ask him the questions she’d intended for the business administrator. Dismissing her piece on the school’s upcoming multimillion-dollar renovation as nothing more than a puff piece, Tassone tells her that the best journalists can make stories out of even the most mundane assignments. Unbeknownst to either of them, it’s the beginning of the end for the superintendent and his right-hand woman.

As the back end of Finley’s film chips away at the careful façade it spent the first half establishing, it becomes apparent that Tassone was never really that good at his job in the first place. The camera lingers on a leaking, corroded ceiling tile, essentially serving as a permanent question mark that hangs above Tassone’s head. He proposes a skywalk to link both ends of the school and argues it would boost test scores, but the reality is that the move is purely a cosmetic one that will raise real-estate values long before it has a similar effect on even one student’s grades. Rachel’s digging uncovers dirt on Gluckin first, but then she homes in on Tassone. Local real-estate agent and school-board head Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano, continuing to add fuel to a simmering Romano-ssance) is one of the first to catch on to what’s really happening within the upper echelons of Roslyn School District. From there, it’s a downward spiral of desperation and deceit that echoes Jim McAllister’s (Matthew Broderick) fall from grace in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999).

Despite the glossy shine of Finley’s direction — a large part of what made Thoroughbreds such a standout a few years back — Bad Education falls victim to many of the standard tropes that come with adapting true stories for the big screen: a coterie of over-involved helicopter parents are consolidated into one entity, years of sketchy dealings get minimized into a single occurrence, important themes are clumsily personified by one-note characters, and all sorts of other minor clichés abound. Echoing Tassone’s superficial school renovations, cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s slick camera movements constitute an expensive cosmetic cover-up for the crumbling and neglected roof of Makowsky’s script. While certainly a marked improvement over the writer’s previous two projects, Take Me (2017) and I Think We’re Alone Now (2018), Bad Education could benefit from a subtler approach. Creative liberties with the actual events are a given with any based-on-a-true-story, but the perfect bow that Makowsky makes out of the story’s loose ends feels somewhat disingenuous when most true-crime aficionados know that no case is ever truly cut-and-dried (especially this one).

Still, as a graduate of St. Louis’ esteemed John Burroughs School, Cory Finley perfectly encapsulates the high-school experience for these wealthy Long Island families. Given that Burroughs alumni include Mad Men (2007-15) star Jon Hamm, The Office (2005-2013) alum Ellie Kemper, and screenwriter Beau Willimon, Finley surely knows what it’s like to attend a school that pushes students to strive for greatness. Bad Education might not reach the demented heights of the director’s feature debut, but it doesn’t matter when three convincing performances from Jackman, Janney, and Romano meld seamlessly with Finley’s inspired aesthetic to create a relatively convincing tale of suburban greed. This exceptional look and feel is what stands out most in Bad Education and is ultimately what makes it worth viewing.

Rating: B

Bad Education is now available to stream from HBO.