Cory Finley’s impressive second feature, Bad Education, will strike a chord with anyone who enjoys smart, well-made films. However, it will be especially compelling for people from a certain area of this country. This film is based on the true story of the largest school embezzlement scandal in American history, which took place in Roslyn, New York in 2002. For those who are unaware, Roslyn is located on the north shore of Long Island. As a native of Long Island, I feel confident in saying that if you are from there as well, then Bad Education will be one of the most fascinating movie experiences you will have in 2020.
One does not necessarily have to be from Long Island in order to enjoy Bad Education though. The film received wide-spread praise after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival near the end of last year. Since that premier, critics have been commending Mike Makowsky’s smart and witty screenplay. Makowsky, being a former student of the Roslyn school district, was able to tell this story from a deeply personal perspective. It’s clear that he understood these characters, this setting, and this story. That story he was able to understand so well is centered on Frank Tassone, the school district’s superintendent, and his downfall from beloved town hero to criminal outcast. Tassone, along with some of his colleagues, stole millions from the school district and the taxpayers throughout his stint as superintendent. Tassone is portrayed brilliantly by Hugh Jackman in Bad Education. Jackman embodies the charismatic spirit of Tassone in a way that feels authentic. The audience is able to see why so many people were incredibly fond of Tassone before the news of his fraud was made public. What makes Jackson’s performance so impressive though, is that the darkness that lies within this character is always apparent. There is a sleaziness that comes across in Jackson’s performance, which is aided by Finley’s directing and Makowsky’s script. The other standout performer in this film is Allison Janney. Janney plays Pam Gluckin, a colleague of Tassone’s who participated in the theft. Gluckin is a prototypical Long Island character, and Janney was able to pull this role off flawlessly. She embodied a certain type of Long Island resident in a way that felt bizarrely familiar to me. I was wildly impressed by how Jackman, who is from Australia, and Janney, who is from Ohio, were able to capture the spirit of Long Island so well.
Finley and Makowsky wisely injected a great amount of humor into this story, which was ultimately necessary for the film’s success. There is something inherently comical about these characters and this world, and it would have been a mistake for them to ignore that. The supporting cast, highlighted by Ray Romano, did a tremendous job delivering a lot that comedy and filling out this world as well. The humor feels organic and natural because the characters feel like a real part of the world that they exist in. Despite some of the more overtly comedic moments in this film though, Finley always treats the audience with great respect. Nothing in this film is dumbed-down or overly explained. The film is as smart as it is funny, and it trusts that the audience can follow along.
My major complaint with this film comes in its third act. The ending of this film feels somewhat abrupt, and the resolution of the story almost feels like it’s happening in fast forward. Because the real life story behind this film is so interesting, I would have liked to seen the film take its time more in certain scenes, and delve deeper into a few particular characters as well. I’m thinking specifically of Geraldine Viswanathan’s character. Viswanathan plays Rachel Bhargava, the student who actually first exposed the embezzlement scandal in the school newspaper. Bhargava felt like such an interesting character and I really wish the film would have spent more time with her. She is forced to make an important decision near the end of the film, but the audience really only sees her contemplate this decision in one short and simple scene. Also, we don’t really see much of her character after the news of the scandal breaks. Bad Education is one of the few movies that could actually benefit from being a bit longer. Even though I think its runtime of 103 minutes is usually perfect for a film like this, I was left wanting a little more when the credits rolled.
So, I talked about why I loved this film and I talked about what I thought it could have done better, but now it’s time to answer the most important question in this review: Is This the Most Long Island Movie of All Time? Before I saw this film, I was certain that Greg Mottola’s 1996 debut, The Daytrippers, was the film that captured Long Island better than any other. There were films fighting for second place such as The Wolf of Wall Street, Uncut Gems, and Good Time, but The Daytrippers was the clear number one for me. After viewing Bad Education though, it is no longer clear. In fact, I think The Daytrippers may just have gotten bumped down to the number two slot. Mottola’s film—which is centered on a happily-married woman and her dysfunctional family traveling into New York City to see if her husband is cheating on her—accurately captures both what a lot of Long Island families are like, and what a lot of Long Islanders relationship to New York City is like as well. However, I’d argue that Long Island itself is a character in Bad Education more so than it is in The Daytrippers. The world of Long Island is much more fully fleshed out in Bad Education. For someone born and raised on Long Island, every character in Bad Education, even the minor ones, feels like a familiar face. The settings and the language resonated with me as well. This film is a must-watch for Long Islanders. But, it’s also a very entertaining ride for any film fan, regardless of their hometown, looking for something to watch during quarantine.
Rating: 4 out of 5