Doing Math and Taking Names: Sluggish, convoluted execution at odds with amusing premise in "The Accountant"

The Accountant (2016)
128 min., rated R.

It’s a shame how one’s evaluation of a film can shift almost halfway from interest to frustration and disappointment over the course of two hours. Set up as a slow-burn thriller, “The Accountant” is compelling as a bizarre genre-bender until it’s not. The film attempts to be convincing and an amusing hoot almost simultaneously, the low-key, sluggish approach by director Gavin O’Connor (2011's "Warrior") at odds with the plate-spinning, needlessly convoluted script by Bill Dubuque (2014’s “The Judge”). Imagine if John Nash from “A Beautiful Mind” somehow procured a particular set of skills that of a Jason Bourne or John Wick.

Fronting himself as an antisocial accountant near Chicago, Christian “Chris” Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a savant mathematician who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a young boy. Oh, and he’s a crack shot and can crunch more than just numbers. After signing a contract with robotics company CEO Lamar Black (John Lithgow) and CFO sister Rita (Jean Smart) when more than $60 million goes missing from the books, Chris is paired up with chipper junior accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), employed by Black. When he works alone and uncovers a series of illegal transactions overnight, Dana is intrigued by this man and becomes the one person in Chris’s life with whom he makes a connection. Meanwhile, soon-to-be-retired Treasury Department director Ray King (J.K. Simmons) blackmails analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), forcing her to find a certain accountant whom Ray has tracked in surveillance. And, let's not forget, a mysterious hitman (Jon Bernthal) is also targeting Chris and Dana.

“The Accountant” works best when it’s tracking Chris through his unique upbringing and his precise, albeit unexceptional, way of life. When their mother (Mary Kraft) couldn’t handle taking care of an autistic child, young Chris (Seth Lee) and his brother (Jake Presley) were raised and trained in combat by their strict military father (Robert C. Treveiler). As a result, now as an adult, Chris completes a ritual of myofascial release therapy every night where he cranks the heavy-metal music and turns on a strobe light while rolling a wooden dowel over his shins. With a quiet, more reserved demeanor, Ben Affleck is surprisingly well-suited to the role of Christian Wolff, and somehow, his portrayal of autism is hardly ever mannered. Also helping are the quirky interactions between Chris and Dana; Anna Kendrick cannot help but be luminous by just showing up, and her charming work as Dana makes for a likely partner. Nearly everything else gets in the way.

There is a welcome deadpan sense of humor trickling through "The Accountant," which, given its silly premise could have been titled “Accounting Sniper." Otherwise, it is somber and a little all over the place, ultimately unsure about what it wants to do and how to go about it. The film tantalizes at first in watching the pieces of the so-called puzzle come together. Then, as the viewer connects the dots even before characters explain their motivations, major plot turns are revealed to be either shrug-worthy or forgone conclusions, adding to the film’s protracted length. How a hired gun (Jon Bernthal) and his assassination operation fits into the proceedings counts as both. Also, the extraneous “B” plot involving the Treasury Department investigation is absorbing until it’s anticlimactic. Even as a muddle, "The Accountant" is watchable and half of a good movie, but less definitely would have equaled more. When the viewer tries to reach for something at the end, his or her hand just closes on air. 

Grade: C +