James Clay // Film Critic
TORONTO – Hugh Jackman has been searching for his post -Wolverine acting identity. Kudos to the worldwide star who has danced in musicals and been a disgraced presidential candidate. Now, in Cory Finley’s occasionally effective but middling sophomore feature, BAD EDUCATION, Jackman plays a corrupted educator.
Set in 2002, Jackman portrays a New York State superintendent named Frank Tassone. He seems to be a superstar with the children’s best interests at heart. But in actuality, he’s more interested in keeping up with appearances in the community by strutting a rose-colored version of himself for all the school district to see.
BAD EDUCATION does well to set the stage for a taut character portrait of Torrone and his administrative mate Pam Gluckin (an underused Allison Janney), who’s in control of the school’s financial dealings. Finley’s direction frames the story as if we’re on the outside looking in, specifically through the eyes of high school journalist Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan, who gives a welcomed return after her role in the hilarious BLOCKERS). She is writing a “puff piece” about the school’s Skywalk – a $ 7 million cosmetic upgrade. Rachel is quite the sleuth as she investigates suspicious public records on the school’s budget.
With the recent college admissions scandal by the country’s elite, Finley’s comedy scored a stroke of luck when it comes to its relevancy. BAD EDUCATION unravels an intriguing yarn, yet runs into several snags as the film takes shape; namely, the manner it handles Tassone’s sexuality. He’s closeted in his natural habitat at the school but begins a relationship with a man (Rafael Casal) who was his student 15 years prior.
Mike Makowsky’s screenplay picks and chooses when it wants to view its subjects through 2019 eyes and neglects the sexual politics when its convenient. Tassone is outed when his colleagues blurt out a running joke where they tease him for wearing concealer and having well-groomed hair. Tassone isn’t a sympathetic character, but it’s a pretty offensive statement to say that just because a man is well-manicured, they are gay. All of that plotline is eye-rolling and entirely out of touch. Finley’s direction knows little about how to handle this transition in the film.
BAD EDUCATION is filled with a few hearty laughs at the expense of the absurdity of this scandal. Finley also has the cast to back it up and enhance what’s lacking on the page. There are admittedly close parallels to the work of Alexander Payne’s ELECTION; just not quite as incisive. Although, Lyle Vincent’s cinematography is made to look like an early 2000’s style of filmmaking, which is commendable because it appears to be plucked right out of the era.
Overall, BAD EDUCATION is serviceable, but it could have been given a boost with more substance from its side plots. We are influenced by the ones who educated us; they’re meant to be a beacon that leads us on the right path. But we all know how easy power is corruptible.
BAD EDUCATION premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Encore screenings will be held on September 13 and 14. Visit tiff.net for more information. The film is currently seeking distribution.