The action-thriller The Accountant is laughable, but when you’re not laughing at it, you’re laughing with it. It’s enjoyable enough. To avoid disappointment, you should know that despite the unconventional storytelling — a tapestry of flashbacks and twists that make you say, “What the hell!” — the movie is winding its way toward the most conventional payoff imaginable. However, mental-health advocates will be interested in its largely upbeat portrait of Asperger’s syndrome. The downside is plain: The hero, Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), rarely makes eye contact and has little in the way of vocal modulation or a natural ability to read non-verbal social cues. He doesn’t have a girlfriend (or boyfriend) or any discernible friend. But he’s a mathematical genius, a cunning businessman, a ninja wizard, and a crack shot. As the autism spectrum goes, it’s not the worst trade-off imaginable.
The director, Gavin O’Connor, and screenwriter, Bill Dubuque, aim for anti-clarity. The Accountant opens with a shoot-out that’s partially witnessed by a man with a gun whose face we can’t see. Suddenly, we’re in a school in Maine for "special" kids. It’s 1989, and the kindly head of the establishment thinks there’s a place for young Christian (Seth Lee). But as Chris’s mother and brother watch in dismay, his dad (a military man) says the boy just needs discipline — karate lessons that leave ugly bruises, and weapons training. Mom tearfully decamps, leaving the men to their own devices. Then we jump to J.K. Simmons as some kind of chief Treasury agent who blackmails a young analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into tracking down “the Accountant,” a financial aide to crime lords and rogue heads of state who’s seen only blurrily in photos but is obviously Ben Affleck. A (presumed) flashback shows Affleck talking to Jeffrey Tambor in prison. In Switzerland, a brutally efficient enforcer with the Bond-villain-like name Brax (Jon Bernthal) slaps around a sleazy CFO in a parking garage. It’s four movies in one.
Affleck provides a through-line of sorts. You think, “Oh, there’s Ben. It will all come together.” (He doesn’t do scrambled movies anymore, unless they’re by Malick.) He seemed less a lug in his last two films, with a smart, self-aware performance in Gone Girl and a passably dour one as Batman. But he doesn’t rise to the occasion here. He has a fun scene where he enters an A Beautiful Mind–like math-trance and scrawls all over white boards and glass walls, but he otherwise takes his cues from Aspergians who speak in a monotone and have little in the way of affect. A more imaginative actor — like Christian Bale in The Big Short — might have found eccentric ways to let you glimpse the character’s chaotic insides. The movie needs all it can get of Anna Kendrick, who shows up as a junior accountant at a troubled robotics firm overseen by John Lithgow. Her awkward attempts at conversation, her nerdy braininess, her endearing overbite, her cute pink sweater: They made me smile. I got the sense in a couple of takes that they were making Affleck smile, too, even as he labored to maintain his robotic cool. He’s not the kind of actor who makes you think he stays in character when the director says, “Cut.”
Most of the actors give paycheck performances, and who am I to judge? Country houses aren’t cheap and no one wants to fly coach. Only Bernthal does anything original. His Brax is calm, logical, clearly pleased with his own precision. He seems to love what he does without being a sadist. The director doesn’t seem to be a sadist either. O’Connor and his editor do quick, clean work in the action scenes. I actually think they could have used a little splatter — PG-13 accommodates scores of dead people as long as they die fast and don’t bleed. And may I say I’m tired of virtuoso warriors like Batman and Bourne and Jack Reacher and Bob Lee Swagger who don’t seem to have any problem dispatching hordes of scummy thugs? There’s no real suspense in their battles, only the pleasure of watching bad people get what’s coming to them — and realizing in their final seconds the superiority of the hero they smugly underestimated. It’s revenge porn.