Working off a script by Mike Makowsky, the film doesn’t start with the players swimming in their ill-gotten gains. Instead, Bad Education slyly focuses on the legitimately-gotten wealth of the community, of which the school is a key hub. Spicer is a real estate agent who raves about early-2000’s home prices, and Finley’s camera finds all the jewelry on his hands. The gift basket he and his cohorts deliver to Tassone might be a thank you for his work with educating their children, but it’s more likely about how fat their commissions are. In contrast, Tassone appears to be a dedicated administrator who would thrive and improve any school he was attached to. He knows the names and interests of the students and the staff, practicing every day with Gluckin in the bleachers during their lunch breaks. Their rapport isn’t of cutthroat partners in crime ready to sell each other out at the first sniff of heat around the corner, but of longtime friends who think nothing of letting each other take a big bite off their own sandwiches. The tightly wound and closeted Tassone is given a potential outlet for his stress during a convention trip to Vegas, where he runs into old student Kyle (Rafael Casal) and starts a relationship far away from Roslyn where the rich widows all hit on him and he wears a wedding ring to deflect their attention. The initial impression, lasting for a big chunk of the film, is of a man strangled by the upper-class interests of his constituents, a public servant whose work enriches those around him while he collects a fraction of their income.
However, Tassone and the film itself diligently cultivate that impression. The first hint of malfeasance doesn’t come until Tassone’s competence and Gluckin’s flinty likability has been concretely established, fooling the viewer as thoroughly as they’ve fooled everyone else. Everyone, that is, except for Rachel. Viswanathan broke out in raunchy teen comedy Blockers and here, she’s the antithesis of her character in that film. Dogged pursuit of the truth, which in Bad Education means document review in mildew-y basements, is her bailiwick, all while being discounted as a child who has no chance of bringing everything down. With a humbled and disgraced father (Hari Dhillon) at home, guilty of insider trading at his firm though he covered for his colleagues, Rachel and her family are disabused of the goodness of the community, and can’t be snowed by the need to uphold Roslyn’s good reputation. She knows that the parents of her classmates escaped while her father was convicted, and therefore that anyone’s basement can have a leaky ceiling. Her implacability turns Bad Education into an homage to journalism, and a demonstration of how it can be done badly if interests converge on a compromised practitioner. As the only character in Roslyn whose skeletons aren’t hidden, Rachel’s uniquely suited to expose everyone else’s.
A dry recreation of this true crime story is not the only thing drawing Finley to this story. His Thoroughbreds also took a skewed eye towards the delusions of the wealthy, and Bad Education spares some amount of disdain for the McMansions and gaudy privilege of Long Island. Most of this is encapsulated by Tassone’s obsession with appearances, though most of the adult characters share this obsession. Torturing himself with disgusting health smoothies and replacing the single strand of hair that Kyle pushes out of place are only two examples. Jackman’s performance is keyed towards maximum control, such that the crumbling of Tassone’s life isn’t so much about the loss of freedom and comfort as much as the total failure of a lifestyle. For Gluckin, her family has the beachside house and a successful car dealership, but her husband’s business (perfectly cast as Ray Abruzzo, Little Carmine from the Sopranos) is propped up by her theft, as are her adult children plus her niece who functions as a rubber stamp in her office. Beyond the school, it’s easy to imagine Tassone getting fed up with arrogant parents who storm into the office every time an A- is given for C+ work, instead of the A that the parents insist on before peeling out of the parking lot in Porsche Cayennes. A framing device of exactly that tracks Tassone’s dissolution, and gives him the chance to vent about how the school has been forced to take on responsibility for so much of the community’s successes and failures. My child can’t be a dullard narcotized by my wealth. Dullards don’t live in houses with this many bathrooms. Someone else is responsible. In Bad Education, people only want to see the veneer.
Rocketing Finley into the top tier of directors in his age cohort, Bad Education moves quickly between scenes that each scream out for more length. The film leaves the viewer wanting more, but not in the sense that the film feels incomplete. Finley and Makowsky are able to make scenes that aren’t much more than two people in an office, having a conversation, feel rich and complicated and anxious. Debuting on HBO makes sense for Bad Education, because extending this story into a miniseries wouldn’t feel padded like so many miniseries do. Bad Education hums with character and depth and cinematic bravado, making it one of the best films of 2020 wherever it debuted. A-