Producers: Fred Berger, Eddie Vaisman, Julia Lebedev, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Oren Moverman and Mike Makowsky Director: Corey Finley Screenplay: Mike Makowsky Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Ray Romano, Alex Wolff, Annaleigh Ashford, Jeremy Shamos, Ray Abruzzo, Rafael Casal, Hari Dhillon, Stephen Spinella, Jimmy Tatro and Jane Brockman Distributor: HBO Films
Corey Finley’s debut feature “Thoroughbreds” was an intriguing variant of “Heavenly Creatures” marred by a mannered visual and verbal style. That’s moderated in this follow-up even though it shares with the first the talents of cinematographer Lyle Vincent.
That’s because the script about a scandal that occurred at a Long Island school district in the early 2000—based by Mike Makowsky (an alum of the school where it occurred) on a New York Magazine article, “The Superintendant,” by Robert Kolker—is a much more straightforward piece of work than Finley’s was for “Thoroughbreds.” That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t cunningly constructed, with plenty of crisply-written dialogue and spicy scenes. It manipulates some of the facts for dramatic effect, of course, but that’s hardly crime equal to the ones perpetrated in the movie by its principal crooks.
The focus of it all is Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the smiling, glad-handing superintendant of the Rosyln school district. He has his faults—he’s extraordinarily vain and has a semi-secret private life with longtime gay partner Tom Tuggiero (Stephen Spinella) while cheating on him with ex-student Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal), who’s now an exotic dancer in Vegas—not to mention that he’s been scamming funds from the district budget for years (and overlooking the fact that his assistant Pamela Gluckin has been doing the same). But he’s well-educated, seems genuinely interested in the students, encouraging them to do their best and working to get them into the best colleges, and has improved the overall record of the district astronomically. That makes the school board headed by realtor Big Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) very happy, since it help increase local property values enormously. They’re also much taken with Tassone’s latest project, an expensive skywalk that will set the district apart from its rivals.
It’s an error by Gluckin (Allison Janney) that leads to the collapse of Tassone’s house of cards. She’s extremely incautious with her ill-gotten wealth, driving around in a sports car and putting cash into several homes. Still, it might have gone unnoticed among the contented citizenry had not she placed the responsibility of renovating her newest property in the hands of her dim-bulb son (Jimmy Tatro), who racks up credit card bills at a local hardware store that start the scheme unraveling. Even obtuse district auditor Phil Metzger (Jeremy Shamos) finally grasps what’s going on, though not the extent of the chicanery.
Tassone reacts quickly, throwing Gluckin to the wolves and claiming clean hands himself. With the board’s support he might have survived were it not for Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a dedicated reporter at the school newspaper. Though assigned by her editor (Alex Wolff) to do a puff piece on the skywalk, she digs into the financial malfeasance with help from her father (Hari Dhillon), who lost his job at a big Wall Street firm over various shenanigans there, and ultimately sets her sights on Tassone himself. The rest, as they say, is history, even if Makowsky massages the facts a bit.
Jackson uses his aging leading-man looks to excellent effect here. He ably conveys Tassone’s initial self-confidence but also his slightly shifty manner extremely well, making him a smarmy figure even as he offers excuses for his behavior (which he explains as beginning accidently rather than maliciously). Finley and Vincent help by giving him a rather sallow complexion, to which the actor adds the appropriate twitches and perspiration as matters become desperate.
Janney, meanwhile, brings enormous energy and brashness to Gluckin, and a real sense of anguish and anger as her career falls apart and threatens her family along with it. By the close one feels a bit of sympathy for these two inept miscreants, along with Shamos’ inept auditor, Spinella’s cuckolded husband, Romano’s blindsided real estate man, Gluckin’s clueless aide (Annaleigh Ashford) and even Alex Wolff’s newspaper editor, who blithely advises his reporter that the Beacon is just an extracurricular activity intended to fatten the staff’s résumés. If there’s a weakness among the cast, it’s in Viswanathan’s Rachel; the actress is fine, but her character is underdeveloped.
The movie doesn’t beautify the Roslyn scandal visually, either. Meredith Lippicott’s production design and Alex Bovaird reflect the place and period and place unobtrusively, and Vincent’s camerawork, more relaxed this time around, capture them warts and all. Louise Ford’s editing is sharp and the score by Michael Abels unobtrusively supportive.
Finley’s sharp, nicely nuanced treatment proves that dramatizing bad behavior in school administrative offices can make for a good movie, especially when bolstered by performances from the likes of Jackman and Janney.