In HBO’s enjoyable “Bad Education,” Hugh Jackman’s Frank Tassone is a blend of life coach, beloved parish priest, and steely Mafia don. He’s handsome, finely dressed, and articulate — there’s almost a twinkle when he smiles — and, thanks to his aggressive charm, he generally gets what he wants. It’s the early 2000s, and he’s superintendent of the Roslyn, N.Y., school district on Long Island, which is a position of great cachet. Thanks to his gifts of persuasion, along with his ability to remember the names of students and their demanding parents, he has transformed the school system into a powerhouse. Not only are the kids getting into good colleges, the local real estate values have risen nicely as a result of his work.
When his friend and assistant superintendent for business, Allison Janney’s Pam Gluckin, is caught embezzling money, Frank fights hard to keep it quiet. He encourages the school board members (led by Ray Romano’s board president) to handle it outside of the law, lest an ensuing media brouhaha undo the progress he has spearheaded. Of course none of them knows that Frank has personal reasons for stemming an investigation — reasons that high school student journalist Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan) catches wind of as she writes a piece on the school’s proposed skywalk.
The irony, one of many in this carefully made film? When Rachel tells Frank she’s writing a puff piece, he plays the mentor as usual, telling her, “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.” His generous bit of advice will cost him more than he knows.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I think you probably get the gist of “Bad Education,” which is based on a real-life scandal. It’s a small and economical movie, but not slight, as it gives us a good taste of the banality of greed and entitlement, never turning its compromised characters into easily dismissed comic monsters. Written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Cory Finley, it shows us just how good Frank is at his job and just how much he cares about his young charges, before it lets us discover the extent of his vanity and self-serving needs. Finley and Makowsky achieve a tone that swings expertly between pathos and dark humor, not least of all when they invite us to consider Frank’s ultimate point of view. In a profession built on giving to others, he bitterly believes that if those working in the school system were more justly rewarded with prestige, and if they earned as much money as the parents they serve, he might have been less needy.
Jackman is better than ever as Frank. He uses his own appeal as a celebrity wisely — at first to lend authenticity to Frank’s generosity toward the students, parents, and teachers, later to remind us how deceptive appealing surfaces can be. He doesn’t bring us on a journey into the specifics of Frank’s fractured psyche; he mostly gestures toward Frank’s buried rage and denial, a withholding approach that fits the character perfectly. At first, you might find yourself admiring the elegance Jackman brings to Frank and his mien, as we see a perfectly coiffed man who’s always in control. But by the end, that same quality is discomfiting, a pretentious suit of armor. Janney is also excellent, if not as central as Jackman. She’s simultaneously funny with her brash Long Island accent and chilling as a materialistic woman who’s a survivor at any cost.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Ray Romano, Stephen Spinella, Annaleigh Ashford, Geraldine Viswanathan, Alex Wolff, Ray Abruzzo, Rafael Casal
On: HBO. Premieres Saturday at 8 p.m.