Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: "The Accountant"

 There’s a lot of things to like about “The Accountant,” but tonally the film is a sloppy, gloppy mess.

It starts out as a serious character examination of a high-functioning autistic man played by Ben Affleck who works as an accountant for some very bad people -- terrorists, drug cartels, repressive regimes, etc. Then he quickly morphs into a Jason Bourne-like character who can bullseye people a mile away and chop-socky them to death up close.

It begins on a very somber note, and by the end has more or less turned into a full-out action/comedy. Somewhere in here is a romance that gets dropped down a well, and a redemptive tale of a shiftless bureaucrat who found his calling late in life.

Director Gavin O’Connor (“Warrior”) and script man Bill Dubuque gather an interesting cast of characters and story elements, but can’t assemble them into a coherent piece. Still, if you look at it purely as popcorn entertainment, there’s a lot of assets in the ledger.

The story opens with Christian Wolff as a kid (played by Seth Lee), prone to fits and cut off from the rest of the world. But he’s got brilliance beneath the behavior, as evidenced by his ability to put together a huge puzzle in minutes -- with the picture facing upside down -- while waiting to talk to a therapist. His father (Robert C. Treveiler) is a stern Army man, and gives him a brutal upbringing of tough love and combat training so he can survive.

“You’re different. Sooner or later, different scares people,” Dad instructs.

Now in his late 30s or so, Christian is a CPA with a dingy one-man practice, ZZZ Accounting, south of Chicago. Affleck does a wonderful bit of technical acting, showing us all of his quirks and obsessions. He blows on his fingers before starting a new task, and becomes distracted to the point of conniption if interrupted before he’s finished.

He does tax returns and such for farmers and the small storefronts around his in the strip mall. But on the side he takes high-dollar gigs from disreputable types, finding out who’s been skimming in operations like the drug lords who, as one law enforcement type puts it, “count their money by weighing semis full of cash.”

That LEO is Ray King (J.K. Simmons), a legendary Treasury agent with lots of huge busts to his name. He’s got a few months until forced retirement, and is determined to spend that time tracking down this ghost accountant. He recruits a young analyst with a troublesome past (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) as his paladin. She learns about a troubled young man who was in and out of institutions, including a federal prison stint where he learned at the knee of an elderly mafia numbers man (Jeffrey Tambor).

Now Christian has been recruited to check out a prominent firm that makes robotic limbs for amputees, led by a visionary leader (John Lithgow) who’s not so good with numbers. There Christian meets Dana, an adorably dorky company accountant who first found the discrepancy. They negotiate a delicate little dance, with her trying to figure out this puzzle of a man and him trying to break through decades of imposed discipline.

(Beautiful, smart and vibrant women are often attracted to awkward, socially clumsy men in the movies – which, completely coincidentally, tend to be written by awkward, socially clumsy men.)

Things go bad when a team of assassins (led by Jon Bernthal) come after Dana and Christian. He quickly makes short work of them, and the pair are in the wind.

Things are more or less fine to this point, but then the film keeps tipping over into unexpectedly funny moments that break the mood. Some are obviously intentional, such as Affleck’s affectless responses to Kendrick’s emotional outbursts. But the compounding effect is to undermine the tense atmosphere the movie has worked so hard for.

The plotting is rather obvious -- if you can’t figure out who’s the person pushing all the buttons, or the nature of the third act’s “big surprise” a long way off, you haven’t been paying much attention.

If “The Accountant” had just presented itself as a straightforward action/drama -- “Superspy CPA” -- then we could just sit back and enjoy it for its own sake. By seeking higher ground, and then settling for cheaper thrills, it’s only marginally worth an investment.

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