Directed by Gavin O’Connor
Opens October 14
It’s pretty clear that Ben Affleck wants to be Clint Eastwood. Not in the gunslinging, squinting, or growling ways, but as a go-to actor-director dabbling in both awards bait and popular fare for Warner Bros. Eastwood got to the point where Warner would make just about any movie he wanted for the right price, a long-term relationship that seems to have been updated with present-day superhero quid pro quos for poor Affleck, who has yet to feel less than roped into the role of Batman. His initial go-round in that part was the first of his three leading-man movies for Warner Bros. this year. The Accountant is the second; Live By Night, his directorial follow-up to Argo that recently got an Oscar-qualifying December release date, is the third and, one senses, the carrot at the end of a very stick-like 2016.
Eastwood seeded his prestigious Warner career with years of popular thrillers, so in that way and perhaps only that way, The Accountant makes sense. In it, Affleck plays an autistic math savant who is also, when properly provoked, a remorseless killing machine. Christian Wolff is the latest of his many aliases, as he books jobs through a mysterious British-accented phone voice, “un-cooking” books for a variety of organizations, ranging from the vaguely shady to the genuinely criminal, and paid handsomely for his trouble. Despite his many crafty precautions, the government and assorted criminals both wind up on his tail. This is Affleck’s second thriller of finances in recent years, and in that way and perhaps only that way, Runner Runner looks like a canny career move. Because The Accountant, as ludicrous as it is, never swings all the way into Runner Runner idiocy.
But it is a peculiar film, starting with the conception of Affleck’s character. The movie takes about half its running time before actually owning up to the word “autism,” perhaps because Christian is something of a caricature: the literal-minded genius with limited social skills, the sense of efficiency honed into health force, the boy with absolutely no dragon tattoos. It’s almost excusable because part of Christian’s elaborate backstory involves his military father training him to fight through a world that will be unwelcoming to him. Really, he’s no less of an ill-advised smush-up of movie-world archetypes, gestures toward real-world ideas, and bonkers “original screenplay” inventions than anyone else in the movie, including Dana (Anna Kendrick), the adorable math-whiz outcast Christian meets while on assignment at a tech company, or Marybeth (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), the treasury analyst with a pointlessly checkered past, or Ray (J.K. Simmons), the treasury agent who recruits Marybeth for reasons that actually make less sense once he unloads a late-movie barrage of flashbacked exposition that feels like it goes on for at least 45 minutes even though it’s probably more like a third of that.
There’s also a chatty hitman played by Jon Bernthal (the movie is nothing if not stocked with character actors; John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor are in it, too!), and an enormous arsenal of high-powered weapons. All of which raises the important question: Is The Accountant deadpan funny or straight-faced ridiculous? When Christian and Dana engage in some cute math-flirting, it’s charming enough to pass for funny on purpose, especially when director Gavin O’Connor places a particularly hulking-looking Affleck next to the diminutive, chirpy Kendrick. When poor O’Connor, who bumbled in to save Jane Got a Gun (to not avail), gets to communicate Christian’s isolation visually, like the way he’s framed in a mirror on an otherwise bare wall in his sparse apartment, he acquits himself better than Bill Dubuque’s explanatory, character-packed screenplay.
For the most part, the movie is not boring (though the Simmons exposition dump does test the ol’ patience). But as the middle ground between Argo (and presumably Live By Night) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s illustrative of how inept even a well-rounded studio like Warner Bros. can be at making a certain type of adult-targeted thriller. This is the kind of studio picture Brian De Palma should be bringing home, no sweat. Affleck had the right idea doing Gone Girl with David Fincher, but that was better material from the jump.
Affleck is a talented actor and director, but it turns out that, unlike Eastwood, he doesn’t have great instincts for pulp; he’s best at genre fare when he backs into it thinking it’s something a little fancier than it is (which is why The Town works better than Argo; the latter is convinced enough of its importance to let the fun start to drip out). The Accountant has some of those humanistic delusions, but it’s really like a high-toned Jason Statham movie without the cool-ass fight choreography. The violent confrontations instead have a lumbering physicality as perfunctory as all of the backstory. The movie leaves us with the unsmiling visage of Affleck, griming up and performing calculations for Warner, hoping to connect with a human story again one day.