By Leah Greenblatt
April 24, 2020 at 02:10 PM EDT
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It would sound like a movie script, if it weren’t actually true: In 2002, school administrators in a leafy suburb of Long Island were charged with siphoning more than $11 million from taxpayer-funded coffers — money they spent on Concorde flights, facelifts, and somehow, more than $33,000 in dry cleaning.

Bad Education (not to be confused with the 2004 Pedro Almodovar film of the same name) is director Cory Finley’s lightly fictionalized take on that ignoble episode; a bright, sharp-edged satire with the gift of two great comedic actors: Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney.

Jackman is Frank Tassone, the beloved superintendent of schools. Fixer and diplomat, leader of wine-mom book clubs and faithful drinker of diet smoothies, Frank’s a community stalwart never without a sharp suit and a smile; he’d be a catch for any woman on the North Shore if he wasn’t still mourning the wife he lost long ago. (Her beatific portrait holds a prominent place of honor on his desktop). As his right-hand woman, Pam Gluckin, Janney may be the less public face of the district’s admin team, but she’s also the one who gets things done financially.

JoJo Whilden/HBO

When a sophomore named Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan of Blockers and Hala) stops in one day to ask a few questions for the student paper about a high-cost construction job, it’s Frank who blithely encourages her to dig in and find her journalist voice. And so the first domino falls in a trail that will eventually lead to multiple crimes, uncountable misdemeanors, and at least six of the seven deadly sins.

Director Cory Finley (who also helmed 2017’s great, underappreciated Thoroughbreds) brings a light touch to Mike Makowsky’s script, nimbly balancing broader comedy and pathos. It helps too that he has such a deep bench in the supporting cast, which includes Ray Romano as the district’s anxious overseer and Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford as Pam’s dingbat niece.

It feels almost inevitable that Education will be compared to 1999’s Election, Alexander Payne’s now-classic slice of heightened high-school verité. And the movie does heavily echo his themes of suburban treachery and desperation, the pettiness of small-town politics and curdling of misguided dreams.

All that might feel overly familiar on a second go-around, were it not for Janney and Jackman. What they do, in nearly every scene, is make their characters more than punchlines or caricatures of greed; they’re just wildly flawed humans whose own lessons in crime and creative accounting came too late to save them — but never too late, for our entertainment, to be a cautionary tale.  B+

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