Film and TV

The Accountant Adds Up to More of the Same — and Mistakes Autism for a Superpower

There's plenty of time to wonder, as J.K. Simmons narrates page after page of backstory, whether the creators of The Accountant realized that their dutifully twisty R-rated thriller was actually another superhero story.

Yes, it’s got trappings of psychology and adult thoughtfulness, speeches about the mysteries of the brain and montages of Ben Affleck, hair cut to look like Jared from Subway, poring over ledgers and — as in all movies about math geniuses — intently penning digits onto glass. It's got a puzzle-piece structure, with some scenes' significance only becoming clear much later, but that's all detail work. For all its ancillary characters and interlocking flashbacks and subplots, the movie comes down to Affleck pretending to crunch numbers and then pretending to fight, writing on some windows and then chucking stuntmen through others.

So at its heart Gavin O'Connor's film is the origin tale of yet another unbeatable super-dude, in this case a CPA ass-kicker whose better-than-human skill set comes not from gamma rays or a super-serum but from autism. Here that complex and variable brain disorder is justification for the traits all leading-man superheroes already have, the givens of the genre: He's the best at what he does. He can't be distracted from his mission, to the point of obsession. He can drop a roomful of hitmen without breaking a sweat. And, like any comic-book favorite, he has a secret hideout, a hidden identity and what we're assured is a "moral code."

The Accountant is about autism — and accounting — the same way a Batman movie is about bats. Those elements spice a warmed-over dish but don't deeply flavor it. You know that brief feeling of hope when you saw the poster or preview for this and realized we were getting a studio thriller that's not a sequel or reboot? In actuality it may as well be.

Affleck gets the chance to play two of his pal Matt Damon's signature roles at once: the natural-born numbers prodigy and the tight-lipped killing machine with a mysterious past. He aspires to a respectful portrayal of a high-functioning autistic man, flattening his affect and avoiding all eye contact. It's surprisingly close to the occasional "serious" Adam Sandler performance, an actor shutting down everything charismatic about himself so that we can be moved by his inexpressive lumpishness, by the lack of him. So, here's two hours of grimly serious puzzle-box dramatics and beat-downs starring Ben Affleck as an Affleck-shaped void.

His character is named Christian Wolff because of course he is, and that obliges him to be a roving loner guided by some higher truth. In practice, onscreen, that means he can't connect with anyone except through a rifle scope. We watch Wolff work through his routine: He solves regular folks' tax problems out of a strip-mall office; he fusses over the breakfast foods he cooks for dinner according to some personal zeal for symmetry; he telephones the mystery robo-voice that gives him assignments for his on-the-down-low real career as a super-accountant to criminal organizations. The filmmakers don't dwell on any of that potentially fascinating material, though, building instead to a standard on-the-run plot and, eventually, a one-man assault on a bad guy's ostentatiously tiered modern mansion. That abode contrasts, of course, with Wolff's practical ranch-style suburban home, the latest case of the studios presenting as villainous the lifestyles of above-the-line Hollywood talent.

O'Connor emphasizes Wolff's isolation by framing him inside of windows even in interior scenes, even alone in his own house. This is somewhat interesting to regard, and maybe there's some suspense in the choice: At any moment, our accountant could toss a surprise bad dude through it, or he could whip out a Magic Marker and start figuring.

The filmmakers seem to want us to take their plot as some engaging puzzle. "Do you like puzzles?" two characters ask, and just to be sure we get it an early scene has a child version of Wolff actually assemble a puzzle in record time and upside down — he only looks at the back of the pieces because autism is apparently indistinguishable from magic. The big picture that The Accountant's pieces will at last get arranged into is never in doubt. The only question: How many of the characters in Wolff's present — including Simmons as a Treasury Department bigwig, Cynthia Addai-Robinson as a reluctant agent pursuing Wolff and Jon Bernthal as a rival killer — also figure into the flashbacks to his past.

Things perk up in Anna Kendrick's too-few scenes. She plays an eager junior accountant at a robotics company whose books Wolff is called in to straighten out. He'll have to save her life, of course, since she's a woman and he's a superhero, but before that she brings to the film something more mysterious than all its scrambled chronology and hints of conspiracy: human behavior. Awkwardly, with playful charm and that goony smile, Kendrick's clerk applies herself to getting Wolff to open up and discuss their shared interests. Eventually, though, she too is diminished to fit the schematics of superhero plotting. She's bizarrely chill about about seeing her whole life upended in the interest of violent adventure, and she seems entirely satisfied serving as the cheery talisman a badass keeps to remind himself he's human.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl

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