The Accountant is a stupid movie dressed up like a smart one. At its core the picture is pure preposterous pulp. Ben Affleck plays a brilliant autistic accountant whose globetrotting financial consulting for black market crime lords and other shady types makes him a man who knew too much. The film follows him into a cat-and-mouse game with hitmen hired to eliminate him and the federal agents hot on his trail. That’s absurd, but the filmmakers have taken it very seriously. Director Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) and screenwriter Bill Dubuque (The Judge) layer in tragic backstory, piling up childhood bullying, stern fathers, absent mothers, jail stints, and more building a picture of the accountant as a sad figure. His autism is treated as both a superpower and an embellishment of his sadness derived from an inability to connect. He lives a lonely lifestyle, moving from identity to identity, dragging his laundered life savings in a pristine Airstream trailer. We’re supposed to see the dim, pale Seamus McGarvey cinematography and the ridiculously overqualified supporting cast and find the whole thing profound. And yet, for whatever glimmers of insight and import it has, the only developments it can think of are loud, tedious exchanges of gunfire.
At least the cast tries its hardest to pull off the silliness with the actors providing their best grave expressions and deadpan exposition tones. Anna Kendrick plays a plucky junior accountant who discovers a problem in the books of a wealthy robotics CEO (John Lithgow). Jon Bernthal leads a team of mercenaries who travel the world looking to take out loose ends for anyone who can afford to pay the bills for what’s clearly a well-funded mini-army. J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson are agents who sit in offices explaining their research to each other before finally getting out in the field, where Simmons promptly sits down and talks us through a lengthy info-dump. (At least they’ve found a new setting.) These are all talented performers, and sometimes it’s worth admiring how much the greats can do when given so little on the page to play. They – and Jean Smart, and Jeffrey Tambor, and Robert C. Treveiler, and Alison Wright, and the rest – spend their screen time here acting like the premise is believable. Because they’re invested in the reality of a story that begins with an accountant-turned-criminal mastermind and ends with a few wild twists and a shoot-‘em-up like something out of Jack Reacher or John Wick, it almost works.
There are sequences where the movie wears its grim self-importance lightly, allowing little quips and small acknowledgement of its exaggerated qualities – like Affleck’s long-range target practice observed by a shocked farmer – to show it’s in on the joke. A movie about a super-accountant has to know it’s attempting something a little off the beaten path, even if it’s trying to shove it into the usual mid-budget Warner Brothers’ crime picture mold. But the trouble comes when the movie presents its very earnest, hugely clumsy, ideas about autism. It’d be free to be sillier, pulpier, and drastically more satisfying if it weren’t for incongruous message movie aspirations. Its opening scene is a tearful one with concerned parents trying to get help in the wake of a diagnosis. Its final moments are of would-be inspirational autism acceptance sentiment. But, in between, Affleck’s accountant is a collection of ticks and cutesy affectations meant to signify his challenges at every turn. This is all well and good in theory, but it’s sloppily integrated, used for comedy of the haha-he’s-unusual kind and to drive the plot as convenient explanation for his superpowers of cognition.
Part of the problem is the difficulty in believing Affleck as an accountant capable of, say, comprehending and analyzing fifteen years worth of corporate ledgers over night. If he was the type of performer who projected deep reservoirs of unspoken intelligence, maybe the film wouldn’t have to hit his ticks so hard. That wouldn’t solve the fundamental miscalculation of wedging a well-intentioned message into a totally frivolous affair, but would at least make it fit a smidge better. Affleck, despite clear hardworking smarts in interviews and behind the camera, simply isn’t good at looking like the smartest guy in the room on screen. He’s always at his best playing average guys bumping up against the limits of their wits – Gone Girl, To the Wonder, Extract, Shakespeare in Love, Armageddon. Here he’s playing at virtuoso skills, trying hard to make sense of a character written symptoms out instead of inside in attempt to write a person who happens to have a particular perspective. It’s just not playing to his strengths. In that way it’s a mirror of the movie as a whole. It wants to be something it’s not, resisting its most appealing goofiest impulses every step of the way.