Watching Ben Affleck leap back into curious big-budget roles has been, for lack of a better word, interesting. His performances in Hollywoodland and Gone Girl, along with his work across the board in The Town and Argo, brought him beyond the mainstream and into the mystical land of award-winning artists. Then he signed on as Batman, and we said "Well, a guy's gotta make a buck while he can." Now he's an autistic hitman, and I think we're all wondering if the 13 years since Paycheck have been educational at all.
Especially because The Accountant, for all its absurdity, should have a sign around its neck that says FRANCHISE STARTER. While Zack Snyder, in his infinite wisdom, inserted Affleck's Batman into the middle of the Justice League build, The Accountant starts at square one and could not leave the ending open wider for Accountant 2: Cook Those Books. That is, if anyone asks for another two hours and eight minutes of this stuff.
Affleck stars as Christian Wolff, an autistic boy borne to a military father who decided his son's disease was a weakness that could be beaten. In flashbacks that vacillate wildly in tone from cruel to inspiring, a young Wolff is forced to push his body to its limit and learn to take advantage of his autism…I guess. Director Gavin O'Connor and writer Bill Dubuque aren't really clear how being autistic helps him learn to fight, shoot, or do any of the action-y stuff that is needed to fight bad guys.
But it certainly helps him account, which gets us into the story at large. Wolff runs a shell office in a strip mall where he helps locals get out of financial jams, covering for his real paydays as an accountant to mob leaders and dictators. When the heat from those jobs gets too hot (an agent from the Treasury Department, played by J.K. Simmons, is on his tail) Wolff and his robot-voiced assistant take what seems like a straightforward audit for a robotics firm. Only, of course, the intrigue at said firm (run by John Lithgow and Jean Smart) turns out to be deadlier than anyone imagined.
Along the way, Wolff picks up Anna Kendrick's fellow accountant-slash-damsel in distress for safekeeping and learns to (sort of) connect with another human being. They dip their toe into the romance pool but let the 13 real-life years between them (and, you know, the difficulty relating to people) serve as an uncrossable chasm. Oh yeah, and top all that off with a mysterious hitman who has larger ties to Wolff, plus a family tragedy that occurred when Wolff didn't keep his distance from those he cared about.
That's a lot of plot. And it's parceled out by O'Connor and Dubuque in an absurd fashion, with ill-defined flashbacks that come out of nowhere and massive chunks of exposition delivered at pivotal moments. Motivations that we aren't prompted to ponder are explained in tedious fashion, as if each moment of the reveal brings us closer to the edge of our seats, and a character with roughly 120 seconds of screen time turns out to be the fulcrum of everything, our only hint being his otherwise-ample resume and a line or two of dialogue.
Most importantly, who is Christian Wolff? And why are we rooting for him? I've never felt more like the filmmakers' answer is "Because he's the main character." You'd think his side employment under rich, evil men would end up being a scheme to toy with their finances and disrupt their criminal enterprises, but it seems like he just likes the work and the cash. And he operates almost entirely out of self-interest and self-preservation, living under a largely arbitrary code that he adopted during the aforementioned harsh training sessions set up by his father.
He crushes hard on Kendrick's character and he ends up on the side of 'good' when we tally up the scores at the end, but more out of circumstance and response than a conscious moral decision. Is this a commentary on his autism lessening the distinction between right and wrong? Or just poor storytelling? From a certain angle, The Accountant appears to have evolved beyond storytelling tropes; from many others, it just stinks.
Affleck himself does a great job at working Wolff's tics into the character, and never dips into the self-parody that could fuel this kind of role. And his supporting cast is a cavalcade of stars, though most of them give standard performances and drift off into the ether (or get a bullet in their heads). But it's hard to throw any praise The Accountant's way when it fumbles at nearly every turn. O'Connor seems to be building an action franchise opener, a dark comedy, and a mental health drama at the same time; there's a reason those three ingredients aren't usually mixed.