Affleck Starrer "The Accountant" Is A Wild Miscalculation

“[The film] is a heap of jigsaw pieces from unrelated puzzles; an atonal mess of a movie that happens to contain bits of genuine of compassion and wisdom.”

-J. Olson on “The Judge,” October 2014

Screenwriter Bill Dubuque made a confounding feature length debut with Robert Downey Jr. comedy-drama “The Judge,” staking a claim as Warner Bros.’ go-to for oddball mash-ups. The trend continues with “The Accountant,” a “Rain Man” meets “The Punisher” hybrid that’s not half as entertaining as that sounds. It’s a mostly languid drama that occasionally sputters to life with crisply photographed gunplay, banking on flashbacks and damsel-in-distress clichés. But its real downfall is the ugliness inherent in its depiction of an autistic man who’s really good at math and murdering people. And perhaps uglier still, how smoothly the film ties up its own frayed ends, leaving audiences with the impression that they’ve seen a decent, empathetic movie.

In other words, in a time when moviegoers can’t seem to escape the onslaught of sequels, remakes, and reboots, “The Accountant” comes as an exclamatory lesson in careful wish making.

Ben Affleck’s title character, Christian Wolff, is admirably fleshed out, sketched all the way from youth to middle age. By age ten, his identity is that of a socially troubled math savant. He and his brother are pushed into a life of intense physical training by an overzealous military father, all of this culminating in uniquely wild double adult life: Certified Public Accountant and veritable assassin.

Using a small accounting firm as a front, Christian accrues both an imposing resume as a forensic accountant for some very questionable people, and a small fortune. His days are spent curtly advising rural couples of minor tax loopholes, his nights scheming in an Airstream trailer in a storage unit surrounded by gobs of cash and priceless works of art. Sometimes he even gets outside to practice his shooting, picking off smiley-faced cantaloupes from a mile away.

Early on, it’s unclear if the picture is using Christian’s autism as a prop or as a means to start a conversation about developmental disabilities. By the time he shoots half a dozen men in the face at point-blank range in a matter of seconds, we have our answer.

The narrative thrust is this: Christian takes on an embattled robotics firm as an above-board client, referred by some below-board people. In crunching the company’s numbers, he finds some troubling discrepancies that bring some roaches out of the woodwork. Soon he’s a man on the run, protecting the firm’s in-house accountant Dana (Anna Kendrick) as only he can – with a hail of bullets.

Christian’s story is a moderately interesting (albeit exploitative) one, a yarn that director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”) might have constrained to a tidy 90-minute feature. But there’s a really poor B-story running concurrently to Christian’s, sucking up both screen time and energy, ultimately derailing the entire movie.

Cynthia Addai-Robinson plays Marybeth, a Department of the Treasury analyst with a shady past who’s blackmailed by her boss Ray (“Whiplash” Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) into tracking down a certain accountant. Their story makes perfect sense as a sidebar, except the pair spend the duration digging up info the audience already knows and, but for a very brief flashback, don’t once cross paths with Christian. When it seems like the movie should be nearing its climax, it stops on a dime so Marybeth and Ray can have a leisurely fifteen-minute conversation that accomplishes nothing but explaining the movie’s mostly superfluous prologue. Excise Addai-Robinson and Simmons entirely and “The Accountant” is the same movie, only leaner, meaner, and a lot less talky.

Conversely, Jon Bernthal (“Fury”) is predictably great in a small role as a cocky assassin who may or may not be in cahoots with the abovementioned robotics firm. Unlike the rest of Affleck’s supporting cast – John Lithgow, Jean Smart, and Jeffrey Tambor among them – Bernthal makes the most of his limited screen time, corralling us into his corner on charisma alone. By his final appearance, we’re so invested in him that the relative incongruity of his character’s arc fades away and all we’re left with is assassin versus assassin.

And yet, this is part of the problem. The movie’s final stretch is so tidily satisfying as to nearly make us forget how weird and ugly the rest is. How unfunny its obviously supposed-to-be-funny depictions of Christian’s tics are. How molasses-slow its midsection is. And how genuinely compelling this all might have been with a little bit of quality control.

The picture is so often all thumbs, so deserving of side eye that it’s easy to miss the fun action-thriller buried six feet beneath it. But even when it’s fun, it feels wrong. It’s understandable that Gavin O’Connor couldn’t make heads or tails of Dubuque’s screenplay or find entertainment in an autistic man graphically executing faceless thugs. How could anyone? But what’s inexplicable is that he seemingly took it at face value. It’s got first-draft-to-screen written all over it, rife with all of the most wild, senseless ideas that have entered and then just as quickly exited the minds of so many screenwriters.

It’s a cold day in hell when a movie would be better off without J.K. Simmons. “The Accountant” is that movie, begging but one interesting question: how did it get made at all?

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: October 14, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Screenwriter: Bill Dubuque
Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout)