Adamantium claws may have made Hugh Jackman famous, but his real secret weapon has always been that seductive mega-watt grin. It’s the smile of a seducer, a razzle-dazzler, a man born to play top-hatted magicians and carnival barkers in 19th-century spectaculars like “The Prestige” and “The Greatest Showman” — not that his characters and their dubious motives are in any way restricted by period.
In the appallingly funny HBO drama “Bad Education,” premiering Saturday, Jackman’s two-faced charm translates to upscale American suburbia with velvety smoothness. This devil doesn’t wear Prada; he sports a phony wedding ring and a closet full of perfectly pressed suits.
His name is Dr. Frank Tassone, and as the beloved superintendent of Long Island’s Roslyn Heights school district, he’s one of the shiniest pillars of a community defined by wealth and ambition. Early on, director Cory Finley throws in a quick montage of McMansions flying past Frank’s car window, as if to emphasize how closely tied they are to his legacy.
Under the slick leadership of Frank and his close deputy, Pamela Gluckin (a lethally good Allison Janney), the school district has become one of the highest ranked in the nation. Roslyn High graduates are flooding Ivy League schools; property values are soaring. A plan to construct a very expensive skywalk campus is under way.
If it all sounds too good to be true, it is. Something similar might be said about the highly image-conscious Frank, whose every decision — the strict low-carb diet he can’t help mentioning around the office, the determination in his stride as he marches across campus every morning — teems with the same aggressive, go-get-’em spirit. But the more Frank broadcasts his all-around awesomeness, the more you wonder what he’s hiding: Just try ignoring the framed photo of a beautiful bride, presumably his late wife, displayed a little too conspicuously in his office.
If strenuous image management were a crime, of course, a lot of us would be in the clink. But Mike Makowsky’s sharp, layered script treats Frank’s vain dissembling as a psychological clue, hinting at far more serious and costly misdeeds. You may already know something about the staggering real-life embezzlement scandal that inspired “Bad Education”; if you don’t, you may as well save the outraged Googling until after you’ve watched it. Suffice to say that, like most good scam movies, this one offers queasy pleasures that aren’t difficult to parse: It’s always fun to watch a grifter’s elaborately constructed house of cards come crashing down.
But there’s another kind of pleasure at work here, and in some ways it’s even more irresistible: the thrill of allowing seasoned liars to lure you into a privileged intimacy. “Bad Education” reminds us how synonymous great acting and great lying can be. Jackman and Janney, both giving their richest performances in some time, manage to pull the wool over your eyes with one hand even as they teasingly pull back the curtain with the other. As two hard-working leaders and inveterate schemers who know the system inside out, they lure you into a delectable gray zone somewhere between the conned and the complicit.
One of the picture’s slyest suggestions is that what makes these characters so cunning — their eye for human weakness, for the little details that (almost) anyone else would miss — is also what makes them very, very good at their jobs. Janney locates unexpected flashes of wit and tenderness beneath her character’s acerbic veneer; she makes clear that Pam’s real talent isn’t intimidating people but putting them at ease.
And Jackman, warmly affectionate one minute and coolly reptilian the next, makes Frank an even more complicated antihero: He’s a repressed, narcissistic phony and a brilliant educator, with an entirely genuine interest in sharpening young minds. When a student journalist, Rachel (the terrific Geraldine Viswanathan), interviews him about the skywalk project, he encourages her to take the assignment deeper: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.”
He will regret his words. Rachel — a composite of several intrepid young muckrakers at the Hilltop Beacon, Roslyn High’s student newspaper — turns out to be one hell of a reporter, and it isn’t long before she uncovers some curious discrepancies in the district’s financial records. But if “Bad Education” is about the triumph of intelligence and tenacity (and a welcome reminder of the importance of a fully empowered independent press), it’s also about how bumbling stupidity and sheer rotten luck can unravel any conspiracy.
In his arresting debut feature, “Thoroughbreds,” Finley employed the perspective of two chillingly nihilistic teenage girls to lay bare the emptiness of upper-class American suburbia — hardly the freshest of targets, though the movie had visual poise and art-horror style to burn. Apart from a few formal flourishes — some pointedly symmetrical frames in Lyle Vincent’s photography, the Yorgos Lanthimos-style dissonances in Michael Abels’ score — “Bad Education” is a more straightforward movie and, ultimately, a more satisfying one. Finley is still eviscerating upper-middle-class mores, but this time he closes the distance between us and his characters; his distaste for them is held in check by his curiosity.
His conclusion seems to be that while Frank and Pam may be exceptionally dishonest, irresponsible people, their base condition is a universal one. The things they want out of life — beautiful homes, luxury vacations, successful careers, contented loved ones — are banal, even commonplace. They have a lot of friends, colleagues and family members relying on them, and the movie, without courting either your derision or your sympathy, suggests that the most desperate con artists are motivated by a need for love and belonging as well as basic greed. (The terrific supporting cast includes Ray Romano, Annaleigh Ashford, Rafael Casal, Jeremy Shamos and Stephen Spinella.)
Early on, well before all hell breaks loose, there’s a seemingly throwaway moment that encapsulates nearly everything this movie is about: the insatiability of the human appetite and the pleasure of breaking the rules. Frank and Pam are having lunch on the bleachers at Roslyn High, and Pam, seeing Frank miserable over his diet, waves a pastrami on rye in his face. “You bitch,” Frank marvels, and you can hear the affection and the guilt in his voice. Pam shoves the sandwich at him with a reassuring, conspiratorial smile: “I’m not gonna tell anyone,” she coos. Of course he takes a bite. It’s delicious.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Premieres 8 p.m. Saturday, HBO; also streaming and on demand