I give today’s Hollywood a hard time for being formulaic, repetitive, and addicted not just to the same recycled franchises but to the same plots in every blockbuster, so that the climax of Superhero Movie X is practically indistinguishable from the climax of Star Trek Reboot Z. Which means I have to give credit where credit is due: The Accountant, the new Ben Affleck action vehicle, is founded on a genuinely original idea. Indeed, I feel safe in venturing that nobody, in cinema or literature, has invented an action hero quite like this one.
That’s possibly because no scribe has ever consumed as much premium-grade hashish as Bill Dubuque, the writer of The Accountant, must have ingested in order to come up with the elevator pitch for his story. What’s your movie about, Bill? Well, you’ve seen Rain Man, right? Sure, loved it. And you’ve seen the Bourne movies, right? Oh yeah, they’re great. Well what if . . .
. . . what if there were a kid with Asperger’s, a kid who loved math and puzzles but couldn’t handle the stresses of everyday reality, and his mother wanted to let him be taught by a wonderful doctor, but his father, a military tough guy hopping from deployment to deployment, decided that instead of therapy his son needed to learn how to navigate a hostile world, which meant finding various Asian martial artists to teach him how to fight like Bourne or Batman . . .
. . . and what if that kid grew up to combine his math savantry with his remarkable skills in hand-to-hand combat by working as an accountant for hire in the global criminal underworld, masquerading as an ordinary sort of strip-mall milquetoast CPA using aliases drawn from the history of high-level mathematics, assisted by a Moneypennyish Brit who chats with him via phone as he speeds from gig to gig, and inspiring howls of “But he’s an accountant!” from his gangland enemies every time he offs another battalion of their goons.
And — right — what if our accountant were played by a big, buff, look-at-me-avoiding-eye-contact-because-I-have-Asperger’s Ben Affleck?
Now admittedly, underneath all this ridiculousness, The Accountant is a pretty conventional action movie, in which the main character is constantly dispatching 18 or so heavily armed henchmen without breaking a sweat, let alone a limb. But the ridiculousness of the premise is still a welcome diversion, especially since the movie is smart enough to dole out the absurdity in doses, via flashbacks of all sorts, so that it takes a while before the full absurdity of our humble accountant’s career and family drama and true intentions is revealed in all its splendor.
Along the way, there are other pleasures. A plot summary is beyond my capacity, but a cast round-up can give you a sense of the movie’s entertainment value. We meet, at various points, Jeffrey Tambor as the imprisoned Mob bookkeeper who teaches our accountant the ways of the financial dark side, J. K. Simmons as the Treasury Department honcho trying to take our accountant down before his own retirement, John Lithgow as the seemingly benign robotics impresario who hires our accountant (in a rare break from underworld jobs, or so it seems at first) to clean up his company’s books, Jon Bernthal as a lurking hit man whose connection to the proceedings seems initially so tenuous that you just know he’ll be linked to our accountant’s backstory, and — most welcome of all — Anna Kendrick, chirpy and geeky and awkward as Lithgow’s company’s in-house numbers cruncher, who imagines that she and our accountant might be peers and tries to chat him up about their shared vocation.
Our accountant doesn’t do chitchat, of course. He’s terse, monotone, stone-faced. Affleck is a limited actor when he’s outside his mildly sleazy comfort zone, but here at least he seems aware of those limitations, declines to try anything weird or spastic, and simply underplays his character throughout. (Admittedly, the fact that his upper body looks like a giant slab of marble encased in clothing rather limits his ability to be anything save stolid.) A more flexible actor might have gone for camp or deluded himself into imitating Dustin Hoffman; Affleck just furrows his brow a lot, gets off a few dry one-liners, and gets on with the action-movie show.
In case you can’t tell, I enjoyed that show. But a so-ludicrous-it’s-entertaining respite from the predictable action-film routine still represents a very strange use of Affleck’s time and talents — which are substantial as a director, substantially less so as a thespian.
It’s clear that Affleck cannot let go of his self-image as an A-List leading man, a Cruise- or Denzel-level superstar, which is why he keeps casting himself in his own movies (he was the worst thing about his Best Picture–winning Argo, and I suspect he’ll be the worst thing about his gangster epic, Live by Night, due out later this fall), why he donned the Batsuit for Zack Snyder and intends to direct himself as Bruce Wayne soon, and why a film like The Accountant exists.
Better this movie than another Batman v Superman, definitely. But better still if someone figured out a way to put Affleck behind a camera and just keep him there.