When we first see Allison Janney in “Bad Education,” she exudes respectability. Janney plays Pam Gluckin, a ladder-climbing administrator at a distinguished Long Island high school who settles two months’ worth of expenses and arranges a meeting at City Hall before first period is over. Minutes later, she’s sitting on the bleachers feeding her boss Frank Tassone — played by Hugh Jackman, also wearing competence on his sleeve — a pastrami sandwich and joking about all the moms who hang on his every handsome word. You’d hardly believe Pam Gluckin is a criminal.
Based on a true scandal first exposed in 2002, “Bad Education” is a gripping and diabolically funny psychodrama about the largest public-school embezzlement scheme in American history. Pam, it turns out, was cooking the books to pay off her credit card bills and fund various luxuries, including lavish home renovations. She’d stolen $250,000 by the time an accountant found reason to question her financial reports. Despite asking for Pam’s resignation and ostensibly rebuking her, Frank knew exactly what she’d been up to — and that’s only the tip of this $11.2 million racket.
“Bad Education,” premiering Saturday on HBO, uses its actors’ charms as a disarming mechanism. Janney and Jackman are the ideal surrogates for a story about sympathetic people doing dastardly things. After all, who is more sympathetic than Allison Janney and Hugh Jackman? Their built-in appeal lulls us into security before the movie upends the audience’s every assumption.
“It was great casting to put Hugh and me in these roles because we have played very easily likable characters,” Janney said by phone earlier this week. “I think we both play very real, human people who can be quirky at times. In this script, you could see that these were characters that were very well-liked. Frank was a demigod in the community. Pam liked how that rubbed off on her, that she works with him and everyone loves Frank. He could do no wrong. It was perfect because no one would suspect. Then when you slowly start to realize what’s going on, it’s even more shocking. Who’s going to look behind the curtain with these two?”
The script by Mike Makowsky ― writer of the 2018 film “I Think We’re Alone Now” and an alumnus of the real Long Island school ― hews closely to the specifics of Gluckin’s and Tassone’s lives. A 2004 New York magazine feature detailing the scandal describes her as gregarious, resourceful and dedicated to her job in spite of her transgressions. Gluckin and Tassone were close confidants. She’d endured more than one messy divorce, and he was living a double life at home, the details of which came spilling out. Both collected six-figure salaries, but they sought extravagances beyond what their incomes afforded them. “Bad Education” becomes a portrait of the lengths some people will go to secure wealth.
The film marks the second feature from Cory Finley, who also directed 2018’s “Thoroughbreds,” a tart “Heathers”-esque thriller about suburban teen girls (Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke) who plot a murder. HBO purchased “Education” out of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, paying a hefty $20 million for the broadcast rights. Finley and his producers couldn’t have known at the time how fortuitous that would be, as the movie will now debut when theaters are closed and everyone is stuck indoors due to the coronavirus. It joins the ranks of HBO’s best original movies, from “And the Band Played On” and “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” to “Wit” and “Behind the Candelabra.”
“I knew early on, before we started generating lists of names, that we needed a very sympathetic, grounded Frank and Pam,” Finley said. “We needed actors that could go to dark places but could really bring you along and feel like rounded human beings and never tip over into cartoon villains. We didn’t know if we could get someone of Hugh and Allison’s caliber, but we were super lucky that I think Hugh had a similar reaction. Around the time we were casting was not too long after the amazing ‘I, Tonya’ run, and I’d always loved Allison.”
Jackman indeed felt similarly. “It was about the character, about doing something I hadn’t done before — I think something that audiences wouldn’t expect me to do, with some twists they hadn’t yet seen from me — and I’m fascinated by human nature,” he told The Daily Beast.
The pair had to telegraph the entire subtext of their characters’ relationship in only a few scenes together. When Pam taunts Frank with a bite of her sandwich, it’s because he’s on a strict vanity diet. He’s grimacing as he finishes a charcoal smoothie the color of tar. “I won’t tell anyone,” Pam coos as she waves the food in his face. Janney snarls while doing this, a tongue-in-cheek moment that signifies their easy rapport, and Jackman offers a knowing grin in response.
“The pastrami sandwich was my favorite because it’s such a fun little character moment, but it also is the movie in miniature: the two of them conspiring to eat something he shouldn’t be eating, and the joy of that,” Finley said. “It was a really small moment in the script. It just said, ‘Pam feeds him the pastrami sandwich.’ Both Hugh and Allison were such good improvisers. I had a sense that Allison had that skill, but I was amazed at how good Hugh was at it as well. I learned over the shoot to wait an extra beat before calling cut because if you just ask these actors to stay in their characters after their scripted section had run out, little interesting things would happen. In the final cut of the movie, we stay in that sandwich moment long past the moment the scripted scene ends. The last several bits were fully improvised. We also had a bee that kept bothering Allison because we were shooting outside. I think you can still see it in one moment. She sort of swats at something offscreen.”
Janney imagined that Pam’s misappropriations started small, as they often do for crooks. She needed to bankroll her daughter’s college tuition and no one noticed, so why not fix her car muffler, too? Might as well add the Christmas presents and beach house facelift to the list while she’s at it.
“I’m imagining it just with a drip, drip of things that she kept justifying over and over and over, until it became, ’You know what? I’m entitled to this. I deserve this,’” Janney said. “Then it just became very messy. Keeping up with the Joneses seemed very important to her in this script. I think they absolutely were drunk with their own power.”
Beyond the casting, what makes “Bad Education” so riveting is its setting. Schools are meant to be havens where kids are protected and bolstered as they mature into upstanding contributors to society. Being an educator is among the most noble of professions, and yet here are two who decided their line of work had rendered them impervious to guilt.
“People inherently want to trust the people who are in power, trust the people that hold the purse strings,” Janney said. “You want to believe that everyone has the best intentions, wants the best for your school, and wants the best for you. It goes to show you that you shouldn’t blindly trust people. You should always have checks and balances, especially for people in power who are supposed to be doing the right things for everybody. That’s just, unfortunately, what we’re dealing with today in more ways than one.”