For all the talk of sequels, reboots, and live-action remakes, it can be comforting to be confronted with the occasional reminder that Hollywood is still capable of surprising us. Case in point: “The Accountant,” a new Warner Bros. action movie in which Ben Affleck plays an ass-kicking autistic man who travels the globe under a series of aliases and performs elite maths for some of the world’s most dangerous people. This is a real thing starring real people and made with real money (although not very much of it, as the film’s $40 million budget pales in comparison to the $175 million that the same studio recently spent on the production of “Suicide Squad”).
And though — or perhaps because — director Gavin O’Connor shoots this strange October surprise full of the same scrappy, ball-swinging gravitas that he brought to the more grounded likes of “Miracle” and “Warrior,” it is still some very, very silly business. Not silly because it treats a developmental disorder like a superpower or dares to suggest that someone on the spectrum can be as violently hyper-capable as the next guy, but silly because “The Accountant” attempts to prove that point by balancing all of those books at once.
You see, this isn’t just a movie about a socially awkward CPA who performs his audits with an anti-aircraft rifle. No, that might be a bit too simple for screenwriter Bill Dubuque, the unapologetic maximalist whose screenplay for “The Judge” willed a dopey Robert Downey, Jr. vehicle into a biblical midwestern epic (complete with its own dubious depiction of autism).
No, this is also a movie about the psychotic father who raised our serial-killing, pocket-protecting savant. It’s a movie about the little brother who acted as his only friend. It’s a movie about the retiring treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) who’s obsessed with catching him, and the upstart trainee (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) who’s being groomed to finish the job. It’s a movie about the sweetly shady convict (Jeffrey Tambor, effectively reprising his “Arrested Development” shtick) who teaches the accountant everything he knows about dark money, and it’s a movie about the billionaire CEO (John Lithgow) who enlists the eponymous add man to plug the leak in his robotics company. It’s a movie about the plucky, overeager young employee of that robotics company (Anna Kendrick) who first identifies the crooked numbers, and — finally! — it’s a movie about the swaggering hitman (Jon Bernthal) who always sounds like he’s auditioning for the Brad Pitt part in a Tarantino film.
“The Accountant” is all of these things, and yet seldom any of them at the same time. So while “Jason Bourne meets Temple Grandin” might sound like an interesting idea for a studio write-off, “James Bond meets Michael Clayton meets Rain Man meets all of their friends and enemies” is a dull movie that’s too full of distractions to pay out any dividends.
Redefining what it means to be a mathlete, Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, the most lethal dweeb in rural Illinois. Nearly an hour goes by before anyone mentions the word “autism” (in one of the film’s myriad flashbacks, a therapist appears to dodge the rhetoric by claiming that he doesn’t like labels), but the character is defined by his developmental issues from the start. And that’s a shame, because Affleck acts autism like he took all of his cues from Drax the Destroyer in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” broadly affectless and numb to sarcasm but without the benefit of actually being a humanoid alien from a distant world.
It’s a somnambulant performance that feels like an unwelcome return to one of Affleck’s previous incarnations, a throwback to his years in the desert before he found his power behind the camera — the “Paycheck” portion of his career. Once he was in “The Sum of All Fears,” and now he’s back for “The Fear of All Sums.” At the very least, Affleck’s taxing trip through time provides a fun window into an alternate reality where he got to the play the tortured math prodigy in “Good Will Hunting,” where he got to write fancy equations on windows during a series of prolonged montages. Vengeance! And bonus: This time around he comes pre-equipped with the Indonesian fighting style of pentjak silat at his disposable, ready to pummel any of the henchmen — and there’s always henchmen — who threaten to take him down.
And it’s in that pummeling where the film finds its short-lived stride, as O’Connor is far more comfortable with the action than he is with juggling any of the various subplots that lead to the most violent set pieces. He shoots the combat with a palpable brutality, explicitly restricting the action to a human scale — typical fisticuffs take place in a one-bedroom apartment or on the field of an unsuspecting couple’s farm. There are no car chases; there are more silencers than explosions. Even just the weight of those anti-aircraft rounds — the sound that they make as they obliterate a human head or the foundation of a house — is enough to instill a deadly heft back into a genre that had been seduced by CG along with all the others.
But somewhere underneath all of the shootings, somewhere beneath the surface of this woefully overcomplicated saga of fake names and flimsy narratives, lurks a nice message about how people on the spectrum should be treated as different, but not less than. They are not uncommunicative, but simply communicate in different ways.
There’s a long and spotty history of movies where mental health issues are treated like misdiagnosed superpowers (e.g. “Phenomenon,” to go with a particularly inane example), and O’Connor’s hands are too shaky to thread the needle between making Christian a high-functioning adult who refuses to see himself as a victim, and — well — a superhero. The latter wins out in a landslide, the character so unnaturally skilled with both numbers and neck-snaps that all of the film’s attempts to make him seem more human end up backfiring in the opposite direction (while Kendrick’s attempts to pull him down to Earth prove just as futile and frustrating to watch).
Shorn of any real style or urgency, “The Accountant” has no choice but to hone in on Christian himself, unpacking the relationships that shaped the man he would become. Inadvertently laughable exposition dumps make sure that we’re all up to speed for the gnarly final shootout and the explosively ridiculous plot twists that finally reveal what kind of movie this story wanted to be, and confirm our nagging suspicions that — with one or two major exceptions — all of the supporting characters detailed above aren’t only forgettable, but also superfluous.
But, when seen from a certain remove, it’s easy to appreciate how “The Accountant” harkens back to a time when studios were willing to take chances, however inexplicable those chances might have been. A time before mid-budget movies disappeared and all of the Hollywood fare became too expensive to actually take any risk. A time before accounting seemed like the only thing that mattered.
“The Accountant” opens in theaters on Friday, October 14th.