When I read, “The following is based on a true story,” I am overcome by apprehension as well as ecstasy. Apprehension because such films can be too contrived — where they are a mere simulation of reality, with nothing more to offer. And ecstasy because I gleefully wait to see the idiosyncrasies of real people on screen, where fact can actually be stranger than fiction. And Bad Education (2020) middles between the two, a deliciously fascinating plot defenestrated because of its by the book treatment of a biography.
If told that a high school, student-run journal exposed embezzlement of millions of taxpayers’ dollars, most would mockingly dismiss it. But this, in fact, did happen. Bad Education depicts the “largest, most extraordinary” school theft ever to take place in America. We see how over 11 million dollars were siphoned off from a school district near New York, with ease and efficiency. There are a series of morally murky characters who are shown to steal money meant for children and their education, with absolutely no remorse. And as an icing on the cake, we also get a glimpse of their salacious affairs. So, intrinsically, this movie enters an enthralling playing field, getting a chance to tackle amorality, greed and indulgence. But it does none of that.
The film has a solid start. It begins with Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the superintendent of a school district, plucking his nose hair and arranging his crease-less suit, getting ready to speak at an event. He has one goal in mind — to get his school district to lead in the ranks. So do his colleagues. And later, as misfortune strikes, in a domino effect, members of the school administration are caught with embezzlement, starting with Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). Up until this very moment, the irreverent humour keeps the film afloat — while Tassone’s appetite is constantly aroused at the sight of carbs and well-ironed suits, the first set of twists and turns in the story are rather engrossing.
Hugh Jackman breathes his character — embodying the Ivy League gait of vanity, he manages to bring out the air of duplicity that Tassone possesses. Minutes after he says, “Come on, we don’t care about the community,” Tassone comically reassures a mother that her child will not be mistreated in class. But Gluckin, shown as a money-grubbing workaholic, is simply a cardboard cutout of an otherwise foxy character. Unlike Jackman, Janney’s role is one-note. She wallows in self-pity throughout, constantly exhibiting passive-aggressive anger. The audience is never really made to indulge in her money-suction sprees or her wealth. After all, she owns a Jaguar and three bungalows. Instead of understanding how and why Gluckin began embezzling, we are given a cop-out of a reason, “I wanted you [family] to be happy with me.” We know too little about her to sympathise or hate.
Eventually, as the dominoes fall, all Bad Education does is spew facts on the screen like a stylised documentary, which, only for a brief moment, was entertaining. But then, it all drags out because there really is no philosophical discussion that director Cory Finley and writer Mike Makowsky offer to a preposterous story. The operatic composition in the background, with a loud orchestra of violin, cello and French horn, would work if Finley accompanied it with an equally complex plot. The film shows no moral dilemma because it is too busy cramming in as many real-life details as possible in a meagre 100 minutes. The facts, essentially, rob Bad Education of any personality whatsoever.
The weight of a biographical film can be tested in its ability to balance reality with entertainment, especially in a case like Bad Education. But the increasingly unidimensional script bogs the film down to the extent that even Hugh Jackman’s stellar performance cannot redeem it. Neither can the colourful and humorous opening half-hour. Maybe if the dark comedy was supplemented with a more sapid take on human nature, the plot would not be half as dry and tedious.
Bad Education (2020), that originally premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival 2019, is now available to stream on Disney+ Hotstar.