By Richard Roeper
Frank Tassone was the closest thing to a rock star you’ll ever see in the field of school administration.
As the superintendent for New York’s Roslyn School District in the 1990s and early 2000s, Tassone was a commanding, charismatic figure who always wore well-tailored suits, tooled about in a Mercedes, knew the names of nearly every teacher, parent and student and basked in the adoration of the community. They worshipped Tassone because he spearheaded the district’s ascent to becoming ranked the fourth best public school system in the country.
Only a few problems. As budget requests soared, school structures remained in disrepair. The roof leaked – in multiple places. Some of the contracting firms billing the district for hundreds of thousands of dollars seemed … shady. And while Frank played the part of the griev- ing widower, he was actually living a double life.
Wait. Make that a triple life.
The surreal story of the Roslyn School District embezzlement scandal caused a media sensation nearly 20 years ago, and it’s now the focus of “Bad Education,” a darkly funny and cleverly conceived HBO original movie. Based on a screenplay by Mike Makowsky, a Roslyn middle school student in the mid-2000s, and directed with a keen attention to detail and pacing by Cory Finley, this is a stylized take on real-life events, in the vein of “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” and “I, Tonya.”
Hugh Jackman adds a sparkling entry to his resume with his performance as the preening, charming, narcissistic Tassone, who for all his faults and double-dealings seems to actually care about inspiring teachers and students to new heights. Allison Janney turns in Emmy-level work as Tassone’s second-in-command, one Pam Gluckin, who is like walking sandpaper compared to Tassone’s silky smooth style.
Overcoming an intrusive and unnecessarily cutesy score, “Bad Education” lays out the seriocomic events in entertaining fashion. Tassone takes the Concorde on an overseas trip, jets off to Vegas, runs up dry-cleaning bills on his tailored suits and even gets a little nip-tuck plastic surgery to keep his appearance fresh. Gluckin hosts parties at her lavish waterfront home in the Hamptons. Nobody seems to care or question how these two can be enjoying such extravagant lifestyles on glorified teachers’ salaries. Nobody questions why the roof keeps leaking despite all those huge budget requests for repairs. What really matters is the Roslyn School District is ranked fourth in the entire nation.
Things start to unravel when Gluckin puts her idiot son in charge of remodeling her home, and he runs up enormous bills at home improvement stores while using a school district credit card. Meanwhile, an industrious student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan) is pounding the pavement and diving deep into public receipts and records indicating a clear pattern of corruption.
Ray Romano turns in another stellar post-sitcom performance as the school board president who can’t get a handle on the breathtaking scope of the corruption that happened under his watch and makes all the wrong moves in trying to stem the tide. Still, we share his frustration with Tassone, who to the very end has a way of turning things around and making it seem like he is somehow the real victim. Jackman does a magnificent job of portraying a man who has been lying so long on so many fronts, even he isn’t sure of the truth any longer.