Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 2019. HBO Films, Automatik Entertainment, Sight Unseen Pictures, Slater Hall Pictures. Screenplay by Mike Makowsky, based on the New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker. Cinematography by Lyle Vincent. Produced by Fred Berger, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Julia Lebedev, Mike Makowsky, Oren Moverman, Eddie Vaisman. Music by Michael Abels. Production Design by Meredith Lippincott. Costume Design by Alex Bovaird. Film Editing by Louise Ford. Gotham Awards 2020. Independent Spirit Awards 2020. Toronto International Film Festival 2019.
It’s a cycle we all find irresistible: America can turn anything important into a business, someone will cheat at that business for their own profit, and then their grand folly will be turned into magnificent cinematic entertainment (which is also good for business). This latest in the tales of high crimes in low places is set among the tacky, nouveau riche denizens of a Long Island district whose superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and his assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) have turned the area into an educational paradise. The kids from these high schools have very high rates of making it into prestigious post-secondary institutions, and with the promise of academic success comes increased property values in an affluent land of endless McMansions, so it’s no understatement to say that these two people make everybody around them very happy. When a foolish error by Gluckin’s son has him using the school board’s credit card to shop for supplies for their pending home renovation, it alerts the staff to the fact that she has been dipping into taxpayer money to fund some of her own private purchases for a number of years and not paying any of it back. Members of the board call for criminal charges brought against her, but Tassone insists that they keep the matter under wraps, since even though what Gluckin did is terrible, if word gets out to the public it will do their students harm on their applications, and that in turn will do terrible things for the local real estate. This cover-up would be successful except that at the same time that Gluckin is being thrown under the bus, a keen teenager (Geraldine Viswanathan) who is writing a puff piece for her school paper about the board’s upcoming “SkyBridge” project (to link all schools by some kind of magnificent pathway system) accidentally digs up dirt on falsified invoices for non-existent companies that, well, turn out to be hiding not just Gluckin’s but Tassone’s personal spending on the public dime as well. What everyone thought was Gluckin’s $200,000 spending spree turns out to be the tip of the iceberg, the two of them have bilked millions from the system and Tassone, who as far as everyone is concerned is a single widower, turns out to have an entire life involving a long-term partner (Stephen Spinella) and a secret Vegas dancer boyfriend (Rafael Casal). You want to hate these people for such a terrible crime, they are taking money out of the hands of children’s education, but you can’t help but have a removed, god-like chuckle at the foolishness of everyone involved here. Two shameless crooks they may be, but they’re surrounded by people who are enjoying the good times too much to look into anything in the least responsible way (including the accountant tasked with specifically doing just that), while the parents are all willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their children succeed even when, as in one emblematic case, their kid is really not built to succeed. Jackman, while far too much a matinee idol to effectively recreate the real Tassone’s look and attitude (and far too much an Australian hunk to play a guy from Long Island named Tassone), compensates for his, on paper, ill fit in the role by focusing on the character’s desperation to constantly look and be successful, happily oozing charm in all his encounters with a flavour of desperation to be liked (and getting graphic facelifts to stay looking like a star in his natty suits). His smooth performance is a wonderful fit with Janney’s Gluckin who is, at all times, a mess, always seconds away from blowing up like a powder keg, face flush and voice raised; it’s a shame the film doesn’t have more of the chemistry they show together. Why people are allowed to be shocked that monetizing every aspect of life, even the acquisition of knowledge, turns out badly is one of the questions that director Cory Finley poses in this darkly satiric look at one of the most insane cases of wrongdoing in American history.