'Bad Education' Review: Hugh Jackman And The Director Of 'Thoroughbreds' Tell A Story Of Small-Scale Corruption [TIFF 2019]

After the candy-colored bite of his feature debut Thoroughbreds, director Cory Finley handily earned audiences' attention for whatever he did next. And he was gifted with a riveting story in a 2002 NY Mag article detailing a shocking Long Island public school embezzlement scandal. Yet while Bad Education makes for an interesting watch, it's a little bit of a bummer that it's missing the unique style and tone of Finley's first film.

Still, it's a hell of a yarn. Bad Education follows Hugh Jackman as treasured educator and popular superintendent Frank Tassone, who's elevated his district's test scores to fourth in the nation and seems to know the name and special interests of every student and faculty member in Roslyn ISD. (We later see him memorizing these details via flash card. That's commitment!) We meet Tassone as he's preparing to give a speech onstage to an adoring crowd, and the camera follows behind Jackman's head as he wanders down the halls of Roslyn High School, backstage past a team of glad-handlers, and out into the glowing spotlight. The scene's edited like a political drama, and with the crowd's cheers and Jackman's magnetism, it's easy to forget that we're following a small regional superintendent here. Such was the power of Frank Tassone, apparently.

After Frank's assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) is caught spending district money on personal expenditures to the (seemingly rather conservative) tune of $250,000, Tassone scrambles to keep Roslyn's name out of the mud while juggling a lot of personal conflict himself. But, as you might expect, stuff gets much twistier before Bad Education reaches its end, and an intrepid student journalist named Rachel (Blockers' great Geraldine Viswanathan) does enough digging to discover that there's something truly rotten going on in Long Island.

With a supporting cast that includes Ray Romano, Pat Healy and Hereditary's Alex Wolff, Bad Education certainly isn't slumming it in the performance department. Jackman and Janney in particular are phenomenal, especially in their shared scenes, two powerhouse actors equally matched in charisma and clout. And there are plenty of laughs and gasps in the film, which boasts a swift, engaging energy and lots of surprises. Finley does deal out some visual flourishes, with early-2000s beiges and blues and The Office­-like scenes of school district paraphernalia, menial task montages of envelope stuffing and billboard-stapling. We even get a bit of a message by the end, a nod to our cultural neglect of educators, though it feels a little tacked-on after all the criminal hijinks.

Ultimately, there's just something missing from Bad Education, an edge or a snappiness or a style. The stakes are high, the story's juicy, the performances are terrific, but the film never crosses over into must-watch territory, feeling a bit more like an elevated made-for-TV exposé than the sophomore effort of the filmmaker behind the deliciously wicked Thoroughbreds. It's a fun watch and a good story, but it never again really reaches the heights of that opening scene following Frank's ingress to the spotlight (even when the film flashes back to it in its closing moments). Bad Education makes for a good time, but it's too bad it never becomes a great film.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10