By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
‘Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal’
Netflix presents a documentary directed by Chris Smith. Rated R (for some language). Running time: 100 minutes.
The Netflix original film “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal” is a documentary, yet Matthew Modine does some of the most oddly compelling work of his career in a fully realized performance in this movie.
Director Chris Smith (who helmed the equally fascinating Netflix documentary “Fyre,” about the hipster music festival that turned out to be a long con) has come up with a bold and creative way to dig into the college admissions bribery scandal of 2019 that resulted in dozens of arrests and high-profile parents such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman serving jail time.
All the conversations in “Operation Varsity Blues” are from real wiretap transcripts, but Matthew Modine plays the part of con man/mastermind Rick Singer, who orchestrated hundreds of illegal “side door” payments that enabled underqualified students to attend elite schools, and various other actors portray the wealthy parents who didn’t bat an eye when Singer told them it would cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to send their offspring to Stanford or USC or Yale or UCLA. It’s an effective storytelling technique — and because most of these conversations took place on the phone, Smith was able to film during the pandemic under safe conditions. (We also get talking-head interviews with real-life authors and educational consultants and college counselors, as well as a Stanford coach who got caught up in the scandal and took illegal payments.)
“Operation Varsity Blues” kicks off with video footage of real-life college hopefuls checking their status updates online, and you feel great empathy for these kids, who look like the weight of the world is on their shoulders as they learn whether they’ve been accepted to Brown or Stanford or USC. “This is my ultimate dream school,” says one student. “I’m getting rejected, I already know,” says another. When they’re accepted, they leap for joy; when they’re rejected, they cry and talk about how they feel worthless. It’s heartbreaking.
Imagine how those kids who didn’t get into their dream school felt when they learned about ultra-wealthy parents literally buying a golden ticket to a premium university for their children. This is the perfect setup for the bulk of the film, which takes a deep dive into the college admissions scandal, with Modine perfectly capturing the look and slimy swagger of Singer, who had a terrible haircut and almost always wore sweatsuits, what with him being a “coach” whose specialty was helping students get into college, whether by improving their SAT scores (not that they’d actually have to take the test) or getting them an athletic scholarship (not that they actually have to play the sport in question). Modine as Singer gets up before dawn, goes for a morning run and spends the rest of the day and most of the night working the phones or traveling from city to city, working his smooth con on one-percenters as he walks them through the process.
You say your kid’s SAT and ACT scores aren’t up to par? No worries, says Singer. He’ll arrange for your son or daughter to retake the test in a one-on-one situation with a proctor, and they really will retake the test, but after they leave the room, the proctor will actually fill out another test form, and that will be submitted. Your kid will never know!
Or how about a scholarship for rowing or basketball or water polo? Just have your child pose on an exercise machine or in the pool or on the court, and Singer would do some Photoshop work and then pay tens of thousands of dollars to a coach or an athletic director or some other school official who would greenlight a sports scholarship for a kid who hadn’t even played that particular sport in high school. (Olivia Jade, YouTube star and daughter of Lori Loughlin and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, was accepted to USC on a rowing scholarship, even though the only water vessels she was familiar with were yachts and friends’ party boats.)
That’s how the “side door” worked. The parents would pay Singer enormous sums of money, Singer would funnel some of that dough to his connections at colleges and universities across the country, and the college hopefuls would see their dreams come true.
“Operation Varsity Blues” does a solid job of detailing how it all came crashing down in 2019, as one arrest leads to another arrest leads to the arrest of Singer, who quickly agrees to continue conducting business with unwitting parents who didn’t know the conversations were being recorded by the authorities.
Singer remains free but still faces charges. Near the very end of the film, we see a parade of parents in cuffs, with graphics telling us most of them served anywhere from three months to six or seven months.
Basically, one or two semesters.
‘Promising Young Woman’
(Revenge thriller, R, 113 m., 2021)
Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times
In a smart, provocative, pitch-black dark comedy and revenge movie, the antiheroine Cassie exacts vigilante justice on the predatory creeps who try to take advantage of her. Carey Mulligan’s performance as Cassie is astonishingly powerful and deeply layered. Rating: Three and a half stars.