By Jake Coyle


AP Film Writer


“A town is only as good as its school system.”


That phrase, uttered by Hugh Jackman’s beloved school superintendent Frank Tassone, has a devilish equilibrium in the gripping true-life crime drama “Bad Education.”


Cory Finley’s film is based on a suburban scandal that in the early aughts shook the Roslyn School District on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. There, Tassone was the celebrated leader of a school system that had risen to the top of national rankings, winning the enthusiastic appreciation of parents. In “Bad Education” their happiness owes less to the good education their kids are receiving than the acceptance letters of elite colleges and rising property values.


But in the midst of Roslyn’s boom times (a $7 million “skywalk” was planned for campus) came the largest case of embezzlement to ever hit an American school system. Administrators bilked $2 million to help pay for Hamptons homes, trips to Las Vegas and other luxuries. The case made national headlines and the writer of “Bad Education,” Mike Makowsky, lived through it as a student in Roslyn.


Finley’s first and previous film, “Thoroughbreds,” about two wealthy teenagers plotting a murder, showed his cunning with darkly comic material. “Bad Education” is funny at times, but it’s no farce. Yet like Alexander Payne’s “Election,” it finds plenty of larger metaphors for America in the hallways of a high school. “Bad Education” isn’t just about a heinous and audacious scam, but how superficial and cosmetic our education values can be — how passing with flying colors often just means keeping up appearances.


And in “Bad Education,” no one keeps up their appearance more than Tassone. He wears crisp suits, slicks his hair back and, through apparently regular plastic surgeries, has hidden ripples of skin tucked away from his face. But he’s also a dynamic leader who gives every student and teacher individual attention. A former English teacher, he gamely hosts a book club only to find he’s the only one cracking open Dickens.


As the school system’s “public face,” Tassone could hardly be better. The same goes for Jackman. His performance in “Bad Education” is certainly one of the best of his career, one that artfully trades on his charisma and eagerness with please, while hinting at something more dubious underneath. His Tassone is somehow both the real deal and a fraud, a genuine flimflam man.


It’s Tassone’s perspective that Finley largely keeps to, which — if you don’t know the true story — lets “Bad Education” unspool if not surprisingly at least captivatingly. From Tassone’s orbit, the movie smartly brings other characters into the fold. Chief among them is Allison Janney’s Pam Gluckin, Tassone’s assistant superintendent and friend. Janney, needless to say, slides into the movie so perfectly that it feels more like she came first and the film was sensibly built around her. Her chemistry with Jackman is great; in one hysterical scene on a school bleacher, she dangles a pastrami-and-rye over him, feeding him the carbs he refuses.


There is also the cheer-leading school board president (Ray Romano, also terrific) and an intelligent student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan, the breakout of “Blockers” again proving her considerable, sly talent). Early in the film, she approaches Tassone for a quote in a story for the school paper, assuring him it’s only a puff piece. Ominously, he encourages her: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.”


How things shake out from there is both predictable and surprising in the way that all American scandals are. It’s a tale of vanity and ego, charlatans and journalists, Ace Hardware and PlayStations. Parents push dimwitted children on “accelerated” paths while educators, maybe deservedly, want a taste of the affluence all around them.


“Bad Education” premiered last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, where audiences lapped it up and HBO swooped in. What might have been an Oscar contender will instead almost surely bring more Emmy love for Jackman and Janney. As brilliant grifters they deserve it. They plunder school coffers and steal the show.


"Bad Education,” airs on HBO. Running time: 110 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.