Review: ‘7 Days’ (2021), starring Karan Soni and Geraldine Viswanathan

June 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Karan Soni in “7 Days” (Photo by Eduardo Fierro)

“7 Days” (2021)

Directed by Roshan Sethi

Culture Representation: Taking place in Thermal, California, the romantic comedy film “7 Days” features a predominantly Indian and Indian American cast of characters (with a few white people who speak off camera) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two Indian Americans, whose parents are eager for them to find a spouse, meet on a blind date at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and find out that instead of having many things in common, they are complete opposites.

Culture Audience: “7 Days” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky romantic comedies with an “opposites attract” or COVID-19 pandemic angle, but the movie is often sluggishly paced and relies too much on stereotypes seen in many other romantic comedies.

It’s a little tiresome when American-made movies and TV programs stereotype men of Indian heritage as socially awkward, sometimes emasculated nerds. This over-used ethnic cliché is shoved in viewers’ faces to annoying levels in the romantic comedy “7 Days,” co-starring Karan Soni as a lovelorn Indian American who’s desperately looking for a wife. Geraldine Viswanathan plays his would-be love interest in the movie, but the story is told from the man’s perspective. “7 Days” had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival.

Directed by Roshan Sethi (who co-wrote the “7 Days” screenplay with Soni), “7 Days” is essentially a dull mumblecore movie with a COVID-19 gimmick. The movie is also Sethi’s feature-film directorial debut. And it just so happens that all of the people who appear on camera in the movie are of Indian heritage. This type of representation is rare for an American-made feature film, but it’s not enough to automatically guarantee that the movie will be great.

Unfortunately, “7 Days” has too many scenes that drag with dialogue that falls flat because of the clumsy comedic timing. Viswanathan seems to be more talented at believable facial expressions than Soni is, but there is no convincing romantic chemistry between these two actors at all. Whatever is going on between the characters that Soni and Viswanathan portray in the movie, viewers will get the impression that this isn’t a romance to root for but it’s going to be strictly a “friend zone” platonic relationship. The filmmakers want to make it look like a romance, but it’s all so phony and passionless.

The beginning of “7 Days” starts off with four real-life, middle-aged, happily married Indian couples talking about how they met, which was usually through arrangements by their families. (Soni’s parents are among the couples.) It’s an adorable introduction, but then the movie gets right to the fictional part of the story and the clichés. The next sequence is straight out of a Bollywood rom-com. Viewers find out that two unmarried young people have mothers who are scheming to find each of them a suitable spouse.

The bachelor and bachelorette are American children of Indian immigrants. The would-be couple are 31-year-old Ravi (played by Soni) and 28-year-old Rita (played by Viswanathan), who both live in California, but not in cities that are near each other. In voiceover narration, Ravi’s mother (played by Gita Reddy) and Rita’s mother (played by Zenobia Shroff) extol the attractive qualities of their respective children, as if they’re creating profiles for them on Indian matchmatching sites. (The mothers in this story do not have names.)

According to Ravi’s mother, Ravi is the youngest and her favorite of her three sons because he’s the most emotionally mature. Ravi works as a researcher at a local university. His mother describes him as kind and responsible. And he loves to cook vegetarian food.

According to Rita’s mother, Rita is a “free-spirit girl with strict moral values” whose hobbies include “caring for her future in-laws.” As for Rita’s food preferences, her mother says that Rita is a pescatarian, but she’s willing to be a vegetarian for the right family. Rita seems to be an only child, since there’s no mention of her having siblings.

In addition to having family members who play matchmaker, Ravi and Rita belong to several Indian-oriented dating sites. Ravi and Rita’s first date (a blind date) takes place in March 2020, during the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in the United States. Ravi has traveled to Thermal, California, where Rita lives. And their first uncomfortable date is a picnic in an empty reservoir. Rita and Ravi are both wearing masks, while Ravi also has on latex gloves.

Ravi is the epitome of an insecure, neurotic dork who has lived a very sheltered life. He says things that he thinks people want to hear so that they will like and accept him. And he often over-apologizes to the point that it gets irritating. In other words, he’s a typical sensitive male protagonist in a mumblecore movie.

Rita is more self-assured than Ravi, but she also has her insecurity issues. One of them is that she lives a double life. She presents herself as a straight-laced person to her parents, who don’t live near her, but she’s very different in real life. Rita is an unemployed slob whose parents are paying for her living expenses.

The conversation during Ravi and Rita’s picnic date doesn’t go very well. Ravi is nervous and sweaty. He tells a dumb joke about how he’s sweating just like he would in India. Rita seems unimpressed by Ravi. He’s also very conscious of following social distancing guidelines of staying at least six feet apart. At one point, he says to Rita with a forced laugh: “You’re so funny. We have great banter. Can you move back a few inches?”

Ravi likes to eat healthy food, and he doesn’t drink alcohol. He’s under the impression that Rita is also a teetotaler. When he brings out some lemonade in aluminum cans, Ravi is mortified to see that it’s hard lemonade.

He thinks he might have offended Rita for bringing alcoholic beverages on this date. He makes a profuse apology by saying that when he got the lemonade from the store, he didn’t look closely at the cans to see what type of lemonade it was. Rita tells him not to worry about it, but Ravi is the type of person who will worry about it.

This picnic date at the reservoir isn’t fun at all, so Rita suggests that they go back to her place. She lives in a middle-class house that looks tidy on the outside, but it’s very cluttered and unkempt on the inside. Rita is the type of person who will leave food wrappers, empty beer bottles and other garbage on tables and on the floor. It’s the first clue that Ravi and viewers have that Rita’s life, just like her house, is messy.

When they arrive at the house, Rita and Ravi both call their respective mothers to give them a summary of how the date is going so far. Even though there are no romantic sparks between Ravi and Rita, they both tell their mothers that this date has potential. Ravi is more invested because he’s traveled a long distance to meet Rita. And he’s the one who wants to get married in the near future.

Ravi doesn’t waste time in telling Rita what his life goals are: He’s soon going to buy a house, he wants to get married that year, and he wants to start a family the following year. He also plans to have three kids. Because Rita and Ravi met as a result of their mothers’ matchmaking efforts, it’s not considered too forward for Ravi to already be talking marriage on the first date. In fact, by traditional Indian custom, it’s not unusual at all.

As can happen in a very unrealistically contrived movie like “7 Days,” Ravi finds out that his rental car won’t be available until the next morning, so he won’t be able to drive back home that night. Rita recommends a hotel nearby where he can stay for the night. Ravi calls the hotel and finds out it will be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ravi doesn’t do what most people would do: Make a reservation at another hotel.

In reality (not in this movie), during the pandemic lockdown period, most hotels were still open and desperate for business. Hotels had plenty of vacancies because they experienced an enormous number of reservation cancellations during the lockdown period. But that reality is not in “7 Days,” because the entire movie is based on the contrivance of Ravi staying at Rita’s place so that the story can go exactly where you know it’s going to go.

At first, Ravi says he’s only going to stay until his rental car is ready. But the title of the movie already telegraphs how many days he’s really going to stay at Rita’s place. And in a formulaic rom-com like this one, that means he’s supposed to go through several uncomfortable moments because he and Rita are opposites.

The unrealistic plot developments continue. Ravi finds out that his rental car won’t be ready for three days, which is really the movie’s way of extending the time that Ravi has to stay at Rita’s house. And because there’s a “shelter in place” quarantine mandate in California, Ravi and Rita don’t go outside for most of the movie.

The “uptight nerd having awkward moments with the uninhibited love interest” is an angle that’s been done in many other rom-coms, and it’s played up to repetitive and ultimately tedious levels in “7 Days.” After Rita agrees to let Ravi temporarily stay at her house, he goes in the bathroom and is horrified to see a dildo on the sink. “Oh, this can’t be happening,” Ravi says to himself, as if he’s just seen a real body part.

Soon after Ravi finds out that he’s going to be staying at Rita’s place, he starts to really regret it. It’s because he overhears Rita on the phone, having raunchy sex talk with someone she calls “Daddy.” At first, Ravi thinks that Rita is talking to her father in an incestuous way. Ravi is naturally shocked and disgusted, but he made a wrong assumption.

Rita is actually talking to her older married lover who’s separated from his wife, but this married lover is vague with Rita on when he’s going to divorce is wife. He seems to be leading Rita on with an excuse that things are complicated for him in his marriage. “Daddy” never appears on camera in the movie and his real name is never revealed. He’s voiced by Mark Duplass, one of the executive producers of “7 Days,” who’s an actor/filmmaker with a lot of mumblecore movies in his filmography.

Most of Ravi and Rita’s interactions consist of more painfully unfunny banter. It isn’t long before Ravi finds out that Rita is almost everything that he doesn’t want in a woman: Rita says she never wants to get married. She drinks a lot of alcohol. And she loves junk food. There’s a scene where Rita enthusiastically eats fried chicken, even though her online profile says that she’s a pescatarian.

Ravi’s and Rita’s lifestyle differences also extend to the type of movies that they like to watch. Ravi is a big fan of Bollywood movies, but Rita doesn’t care for this type of entertainment. She’s a lot more into American culture overall than Ravi is. And she seems to be faking to her parents that she’s interested in the Indian tradition of arranged marriages, because she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ financial support.

Issues of gender roles inevitably come up, as they tend to do in rom-coms. Ravi makes an offhand remark that Rita’s voice sounds like the instructional service app Siri. Rita immediately gets defensive and says, “You mean I sound subservient.” Ravi tells Rita that he identifies as a “male feminist.” Still, Ravi is slightly alarmed and surprised that Rita doesn’t like to cook. And he ends up cooking for both of them.

Rita has this to say to Ravi about why she doesn’t see marriage in her future: “It’s just someone else to fight and disappoint and hate. It’s exhausting.” And when fidgety Ravi gets restless in the house, Rita suggests that they just sit around and do nothing. “The less you do, the less you do,” she says.

This type of boring and witless dialogue goes on for much of the movie. Predictably, Rita spikes Ravi’s drink with alcohol to loosen him up. He gets angry that she spiked his drink, but then he gets drunk and does an atrocious standup comedy routine for Rita. While under the influence of alcohol, Ravi opens up about feeling vulnerable and self-conscious that his parents are divorced.

And then, someone in this mismatched duo starts having a persistent cough and develops a fever. And you know what that means in a rom-com with a COVID-19 gimmick. This plot development isn’t handled very well in the movie. “7 Days” essentially dismisses all the deaths and tragedies that people have experienced because of this pandemic and treats this harsh reality as something that would get in the way of a cutesy rom-com plot. If anyone dies of COVID-19 in this movie, it’s a tragedy that this movie brushes off as trivial.

Even in March 2020, during the early part of the pandemic when this movie takes place, people were aware of how quickly large numbers of people were dying from COVID-19. But in this movie, Ravi and Rita are depicted as being in a self-absorbed (and irresponsible) “bubble” where they don’t care to be informed about what’s happening in the news about the pandemic. They’re more concerned about doing things like a virtual exercise workout routine using Rita’s laptop computer.

Viswanathan and Soni are very talented and have had more appealing roles elsewhere. In “7 Days,” they both play characters that just aren’t credible as a romantic couple. Ravi’s neuroses are on full display, but Rita is an underwritten and underdeveloped character. She’s supposed to be the “wacky one” in the relationship, but her personality is ultimately hollow.

Viewers never find out why Rita wants to live an aimless, unemployed life. Her hopes and dreams are never mentioned. How she was raised by her parents, her work history and her social life (other than her affair with “Daddy”) remain a mystery. By the end of the movie, viewers still won’t know much about Rita.

And when you have a romantic comedy where one of the people in the would-be couple remains an enigma, the dialogue is wretchedly monotonous, and there’s no realistic chemistry between the two main actors who are supposed to be this couple, the end result is a disappointing and off-kilter rom-com that isn’t funny or romantic.

Review: ‘The Broken Hearts Gallery, starring Geraldine Viswanathan, Dacre Montgomery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Molly Gordon, Phillipa Soo, Arturo Castro and Bernadette Peters

September 11, 2020

by Carla Hay

Geraldine Viswanathan and Dacre Montgomery in “The Broken Hearts Gallery” (Photo by Linda Kallerus/TriStar Pictures)

“The Broken Hearts Gallery”

Directed by Natalie Krinsky

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” features a cast of Asians and white people (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 26-year-old woman, who’s been dumped by an ex-boyfriend and fired from her art-gallery job, tries to get over her problems by helping an aspiring hotel owner decorate his boutique hotel, even though her personal style clashes with his.

Culture Audience: “The Broken Hearts Gallery” will appeal primarily to viewers who like formulaic romantic comedies that have people with mostly relatable personalities.

Molly Gordon, Geraldine Viswanathan and Phillipa Soo in “The Broken Hearts Gallery” (Photo by George Kraychyk/TriStar Pictures)

The romantic comedy “The Broken Hearts Gallery” is so unapologetically mushy and predictable that it would be absolutely a chore to sit through this movie if it didn’t have its share of charming moments. Much of the credit goes to star Geraldine Viswanathan, whose quick-witted comedic timing and her keen ability to bring a sense of fun to the story end up saving what could have been a mostly forgettable and cliché film.

“The Broken Hearts Gallery” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Natalie Krinsky, who previously worked as an occasional writer on “Gossip Girl,” the primetime soap opera about upper-class young people in New York City. “Broken Hearts Gallery” is also set in New York City, but the young people at the center of the story are definitely less privileged than the wealthy scions of “Gossip Girl.”

Lucy Gulliver (played by Viswanathan), the story’s 26-year-old protagonist, is an assistant at an upscale and trendy art gallery. She has dreams of owning her own art gallery someday. Lucy lives with her two best friends—sarcastic and bossy Amanda (played by Molly Gordon) and womanizing lesbian Nadine (played by Phillipa Soo)—and they have all been close pals for years.

Amanda is currently a law student, but a running joke in the movie is that she’s always giving unsolicited legal advice, as if she’s already a lawyer. Amanda is also in a relationship with a guy named Jeff (played by Nathan Dales), who is mostly silent and henpecked by Amanda. (When Jeff finally starts talking, it’s one of the funnier parts of the movie.) Meanwhile, Nadine has a thing for dating Russian models, but then she gets bored and usually ends the relationship to move on to her next conquest.

The beginning of the movie shows the trio of gal pals while they were seniors in high school in an unnamed suburb of New York, with Lucy already planning to live in the big city. Lucy has just gotten dumped by a boyfriend, and Amanda and Nadine are comforting her while Lucy is nursing her broken heart. It’s a scenario that gets repeated more than once in the movie.

One of Lucy’s quirks is that she likes to keep mementos and knickknacks, including those that remind of her of ex-boyfriends. She freely admits she’s a pack rat, while some people might describe her collecting habit as hoarding, because she keeps things such as toenail clippings. Her hoarding isn’t at a dangerous level, but it’s odd and more than a little creepy.

Eight years after graduating from high school, Lucy’s life seems to be going fairly well for her. She’s been dating a 35-year-old co-worker named Max Vora (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), who is the gallery’s recently promoted director. Max and Lucy have been keeping their romance somewhat hidden from their colleagues because they don’t want it to be a distraction at work. Lucy gushes about Max to Nadine and Amanda, by describing him as such a perfect romantic boyfriend that he cooks dinner for her. Meanwhile, Nadine and Amanda secretly take bets on how long Lucy’s most recent romance will last.

Lucy idolizes her boss Eva Woolf (played by Bernadette Peters), the gallery owner who named the art gallery after herself. Eva doesn’t have much tolerance for people she thinks are flaky and dumb. You know where this is going, of course. Lucy will make a fool out of herself at work because of something to do with Max. This embarrassing incident happens during a big exhibit opening at the gallery, where Eva, all of the gallery’s employees and many important clients are in attendance.

Lucy has been asked to get up on stage in front of the assembled crowd and introduce Max as the gallery’s new director. As she’s about to give her introductory speech, Lucy sees Max canoodling in the audience with a woman whom she recognizes as Dr. Amelia Black (played by Tattiawna Jones), Max’s most recent ex-girlfriend. Lucy has already had too much to drink because she was nervous about making this speech. And so, when Lucy sees Max getting too close to this other woman, Lucy goes into a tailspin and has an epic, jealous meltdown in front of the entire audience. As if that weren’t enough, drunken Lucy ends up tripping and falling flat on her face.

As Lucy runs out of the gallery in a humiliated daze, Max follows her outside and explains that Amelia was living in Paris but has recently moved back to New York City. And now, Max tells Lucy that he wants to get back together with Amelia. And there’s more bad news for Lucy: Eva was so mortified by Lucy’s public meltdown that she’s also sent Max to tell Lucy that she’s been fired.

As she’s reeling from this extremely bad night, Lucy just wants to go home, so she gets into a car that she thinks is the rideshare that she had booked. As she starts to tell the driver about her “worst night ever,” the driver repeatedly tells her that he’s not her rideshare driver, but Lucy is so absorbed in her misery that she won’t listen. Finally, the driver, whose name is Nick (played by Dacre Montgomery), decides to placate Lucy and drives her home.

When she gets home, Lucy realizes the man who drove her home isn’t the rideshare driver she booked. She’s once again embarrassed, but she tries to turn it around and make Nick look bad by accusing him of being a creep. She also comments that for all she knows, he could be a serial killer, and now he knows where she lives. Will this be the last time that Lucy sees Nick? Of course not.

In several very contrived situations, Nick just happens to be nearby at the exact moment that a lovelorn Lucy sees Max and makes a pathetic attempt to get Max’s attention. One of those moments is the next time that Lucy and Nick see each other. Lucy has followed Max into a restaurant, where he’s having a dinner date with Amelia. The restaurant hostess tries to block Lucy from going over to the table because Lucy doesn’t have a reservation. And right at that moment, when Amelia is about to act like a psycho ex-girlfriend and charge toward Max, Nick shows up and prevents Lucy from approaching Max, who sees Lucy anyway.

As Nick steers Lucy away from this potentially embarrassing situation for her, she gets very irritated with him and asks Nick if he’s been stalking her. Oh, the irony. Lucy and Nick get to talking, and he tells her a little bit more about himself. He’s trying to fulfill his dream of opening a boutique hotel called the Chloe Hotel. However, what he doesn’t tell her right away and what very few people in his life know is that Nick is almost broke and headed for a possible financial disaster since he poured his life savings into the hotel, which is nowhere near being completed.

One person who knows about Nick’s money problems is his best friend/business partner Marcos (played by Arturo Castro), who hasn’t been paid for a while and has decided to take another job because his wife Randy (played by Megan Ferguson) is pregnant, and they need the money. Marcos has a wry sense of humor, which goes a long way in being a counterbalance to some of the sappier moments of the movie.

Nick shows Lucy the unfinished hotel, which used to be a YMCA building. Lucy has a garbage bag with her that contains several old mementos from her ex-boyfriends, including Max. Nick, who calls her a hoarder, tells Lucy that his style is the complete opposite of hers, because he’s a minimalist. Meanwhile, there’s a large empty picture frame in the hotel that Lucy spontaneously uses to hang up one of the items in the garbage bag: a necktie that used to belong to Max.

And because Lucy is a wannabe art gallery owner. she calls this room in the hotel the Broken Heart Gallery, because of this “art display.” She scrawls a note next to the frame that explains why this necktie is from an ex-love and why it’s being discarded. Not long after that day, Nick tells her that an anonymous person came into the hotel and must have seen this necktie display because the person hung up an item with a note that it’s also from an ex-love.

Lucy takes a photo of this burgeoning art exhibit and posts it on social media. It becomes a such a viral hit that she gets the fundraising idea that people can start stop by the unfinished hotel to drop off mementos from ex-lovers and leave messages that can be displayed in the Broken Heart Gallery. Visitors can also give donations as part of the gallery exhibit. The intention for this idea is that people who contribute to the gallery can get closure from painful breakups, because the gallery displays will be cathartic enough to help them move on.

And when Nick mentions to Lucy that Marcos got another job and the hotel’s interior designer quit, Lucy volunteers to be the hotel’s interior designer. Nick says no, but after much persistence from Lucy and much hemming and hawing from Nick, she ends up being the hotel’s interior designer. Nick and Lucy don’t really discuss payment for this job, but even if they did, it’s very easy to see how this movie is going to end.

Before that happens, there are the usual shenanigans in romantic comedies that have this type of would-be couple. “The Broken Hearts Gallery” uses the old “opposites attract” trope as much as possible to show how Lucy and Nick get on each other’s nerves, but they also can’t seem to stay away from each other. Lucy is high-strung and kooky, while Nick is laid-back and analytical. The character of Nick is somewhat generic, and his main purpose in the movie is to play the straight man to Lucy’s wackiness.

Nick and Lucy become platonic friends, but have conflicts with each other, while Lucy puts herself in more embarrassing situations in an effort to get back together with Max. Nick’s and Lucy’s friends (and viewers who’ve seen enough romantic comedies) know where this is all headed. But, of course, the two people who are supposed to end up together are the last people to admit it.

Underage teenage girls are the target audience for “The Broken Hearts Gallery,” so things don’t get too raunchy in the movie. Adults watching this film will probably wish that the movie had more mature humor, since too many of the so-called adults in this movie act like they’re still in high school. (To see Viswanathan in a rowdier comedy film, check out 2018’s “Blockers,” where she was a standout in the movie too.)

Lucy is proud of her eccentricities, but some of her irrationally jealous behavior panders to some awful stereotypes about how pathetic and catty women can be when it comes to fighting over an ex-love. Lucy handles love in an uncomfortable and awkward manner that’s sometimes realistic and sometimes too over-the-top. This movie is a romantic comedy, so it isn’t supposed to be about realism all the time.

However, some of the dialogue is absolutely cringeworthy. In a scene where Lucy and Nick have some alone time and open up to each other, Lucy says to him: “We’re good together, you and me. The monster and the human. Humans need monsters to stir things up. And monsters need humans to fix everything they break. It’s just simple science.”

One of the more charming qualities of Lucy is that she’s more optimistic than Nick is about life and how to deal with problems. When more problems start to pile on Nick, he wants to abandon his dream to build the hotel, but Lucy gives him a pep talk and encourages him not to give up so easily. Meanwhile, Nick slowly starts to show that he has a romantic side, which is refreshing to Lucy, who says she’s used to men not being supportive of her and her dreams.

“The Broken Hearts Club” also has a very good supporting cast that makes the material a lot more engaging than it should be. Gordon, Soo and Castro all have moments when they somewhat steal scenes. (Gordon’s comedic timing is the most natural-looking and funniest of the supporting characters.)

And there are a few other supporting characters who are in Nick and Lucy’s world, including an Eva Woolf Gallery co-worker who’s nicknamed Harvard (played by Ego Nwodim), because she’s a know-it-all who likes to brag that she went to Harvard University, and she constantly chastises Lucy about being clueless about life. Celebrity chef Roy Choi has a cameo as himself. Suki Waterhouse plays someone who has a past connection to someone in the movie.

“The Broken Hearts Gallery” has the obligatory karaoke scene, which seems to be a staple of every other predictable romantic comedy. There’s also the “big argument” scene, where the would-be couple has an estrangement. There’s absolutely no suspense over whether or not they’ll kiss and make up by the end of the story.

There are a few “surprise” twists to the movie that aren’t shocking because it all just adds up to more schmaltz. “The Broken Hearts Gallery” is not for hardcore cynics, but it’s a predictable and harmless movie that’s made enjoyable mainly because of the winning performance by Viswanathan.

TriStar Pictures released “The Broken Hearts Gallery” in U.S. cinemas on September 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Bad Education,’ starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney

April 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in “Bad Education” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/HBO)

“Bad Education” (2020)

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on Long Island, New York, and partially in Las Vegas, the drama “Bad Education” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Indian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, the movie tells the story of corrupt administrators and their accomplices, who embezzled an estimated $11 million from the school district of Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York.

Culture Audience: “Bad Education” will appeal primarily to Hugh Jackman fans and people who like dramas based on true crime.

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in “Bad Education” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Bad Education” follows many familiar tonal beats of true-crime movies, but the riveting performances of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney elevate what could have been a somewhat mediocre film. Based on true events that happened in 2002, “Bad Education” portrays the investigation that led to the downfalls of several people involved in an embezzlement/fraud scam that stole an estimated $11 million over several years from the high-school district in the upscale suburban city of Roslyn, New York. It’s said to be the largest prosecuted embezzlement in the history of American public schools.

The two people at the center of the crimes against Roslyn High School are school superintendent Frank Tassone (played by Jackman) and assistant superintendent/business manager Pam Glucklin (played by Janney), who work closely together and also cover up for each other. As it’s eventually revealed in the movie, they cared about more than just increasing the prestige level of Roslyn High School, the high-ranking  jewel in their school-administration crown. They also cared a great deal about increasing their personal wealth using illegally obtained school funds, mostly by billing the district for lavish trips, homes, cars and other personal expenses.

In the beginning of the film, which is effectively bookmarked with a similar scene at the end of the film, Frank is introduced like a rock star at a school assembly, which has gathered to celebrate Roslyn High School’s achievement of ranking at No. 4 in the U.S. for being the highest academically achieving high school. The school has reached this level under Frank’s leadership, and his goal is to elevate Roslyn High School to No. 1.

Frank’s friendly charm and winning smile have made him very popular with his co-workers, parents and students. By contrast, Pam has a prickly and dismissive personality, but her strong alliance with Frank has given her a lot of clout in the school district. Their boss is school board president Bob Spicer (played by Ray Romano), who is Frank’s biggest champion.

One of the school’s goals is a skywalk proposal, which would build a multimillion-dollar skywalk bridge to link the school from end to end. A bright and inquisitive student named Rachel Bhargava (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) is tasked with doing an article about the skywalk for Roslyn High School’s newspaper, The Beacon. At first, when she does a very brief interview with Frank for the article, she thinks it’s going to be a boring puff piece.

Rachel thinks so little of the assignment that she even tells Frank that it will be a puff piece. His response: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece. A real journalist can turn an assignment into a story.” It’s unknown if the real Frank Tassone ever said those words to any of the real student reporters of The Beacon who broke the news of the embezzlement scandal, but those words will come back to haunt Frank in this movie.

While preparing the article, Rachel needs to get some facts and statistics about the skywalk construction proposal bids that the school district received from contractors. She has to get permission from Pam to access those documents, which are in a very cluttered storage area of the school. While Frank was accommodating and gracious in giving his time to Rachel, Pam is impatient and condescending when talking to Rachel for the article. Pam gives Rachel the room key to access the requested documents, but warns her that the area is so messy and disorganized that it will be challenging for her to find the paperwork that she’s seeking.

The storage area turns out to have a treasure trove of documents that Rachel’s assigning editor Nick Fleischman (played by Alex Wolff) happens to notice when he accidentally knocks some of the papers out of her backpack when he impatiently tries to stop her while walking down a school hallway. (It’s one of those moments in the movie that probably didn’t happen in real life, but was fabricated for dramatic purposes.)

Nick thinks she may be on to a big story, so Rachel finds out through further investigation that the documents have a lot of proof that invoices charging a fortune have been billed to the school district, but many of the companies listed on the invoices don’t exist. Rachel gets help from her father David Bhargava (played by Hari Dhillon) in doing the grunt work of making calls to investigate the legitimacy of companies that are listed on the school invoices.

Why does Rachel’s father have that much free time on his hands? In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that he lost his job because of accusations that he was involved with insider trading. In the midst of investigating corruption at her own school, Rachel at one point asks her father if he really was guilty of insider trading. His answer serves to telegraph Rachel’s decision to report what she’s found out.

What happens next has a domino effect that exposes elaborate, longtime schemes orchestrated by Frank and Pam. Because of this high-profile case, many viewers might already know about the outcome. However, screenwriter Mike Makowsky (a Roslyn native who graduated from high school seven years after the scandal) and director Cory Finley infuse the movie with enough suspense and sly comedy to make it a slightly better-than-average telling of a crime story.

“Bad Education” takes a sometimes sardonic look at how manipulative and cunning Frank was in covering up his crimes. He was a man of many faces—literally, since his vanity facelifts and meticulous application of makeup are shown in the movie—and many secrets, which he covered up with a web of lies that eventually unraveled. Even in his personal life (Frank was a closeted gay man), he deceived the people who were closest to him. The movie is also a takedown of the weak-willed enablers who knew about the corruption, but were complicit in covering it up because they didn’t want to lose their jobs and they wanted to keep up the appearance that they had an ideal school district.

Frank also mastered the art of deflection, so that when he was under scrutiny, he was able to turn it around on potential accusers to make them afraid of getting in trouble for not detecting the problem earlier. He also used, to his advantage, the administration’s fixation on increasing the prestige of Roslyn High School, which tied into many administrators’ ulterior motives of raising the property values in Roslyn too.

Janney doesn’t have as much screen time as Jackman does, but she makes the most of characterizing Pam as being more than just a selfish and greedy shrew. The movie shows how she was generous to a fault in sharing her illegally funded wealth with her family. That generosity would turn out to be her downfall, since she allowed certain family members to use school credit cards to fund their lavish personal spending. The family members who were also part of the widespread scam included Pam’s husband Howard Gluckin (played by Ray Abruzzo); Jim Boy McCarden (played by Jimmy Tatro), her son from a previous marriage; and her co-worker niece Jenny Aquila (played by Annaleigh Ashford), who relies on Pam for financial help.

All of these family members are dimwitted in some way—they didn’t do much to hide their identities in the paper trail that exposed their crimes—but Jenny is portrayed as particularly loathsome. At one point in the movie, even after some of the crimes were exposed, Jenny tries to take over her aunt/benefactor Pam’s job at the school. Jenny also makes a pathetic and botched attempt to blackmail Frank, who quickly puts Jenny in her place and reminds her that she’s no match for him and his devious manipulations.

When Pam’s world starts to unravel, Janney uses subtle cues in showing how this character’s carefully constructed façade starts to crumble, as her perfectly posh, enunicated English starts to give way to a very working-class Long Island accent. Pam is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that she makes the mistake of being too loyal to Frank when things start to crash down on them.

“Bad Education” is a very Hollywood version of a seedy true crime story. In real life, none of the people were as glamorous-looking as the actors who portray them in the movie—although, in real life, the embezzlers spent money as if they were Hollywood celebrities. The movie accurately shows that people got away with crimes of this length and magnitude because they were able to fool others by having a “respectable” image. The ending scene effectively illustrates that Frank’s inflated ego and arrogance led him to believe that he was a legend in his own mind—and the results were reckless crimes that destroyed school finances, careers and people’s trust.

HBO premiered “Bad Education” on April 25, 2020.