Ten things we learn about accounting from the movies

Nury Vittachi

Hong Kong’s humorist on what we can all learn about accountants from Hollywood

I recall some lazy columnist once writing a yawningly predictable article about the contrast between the boring lives of real accountants and the wildly dramatic one portrayed in the 2016 hit thriller The Accountant.

Wait. That may have been me.

Well, to redeem myself, let me deliver a surprising truth: accountants are actually surprisingly popular movie characters.

Of course, crime busters of one sort or another – superheroes, private investigators, police detectives and lawyers – are number one. But beancounters are not far off.

I found out about this from a scholar at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Master of Science degree in entertainment. “You need archetypes in storytelling – and accountants are the ultimate manifestation of humanity’s left brain: steady, rational, numerical,” he told me. “They appear in lots of popular entertainment properties for this reason.”

He and his fellows quickly identified at least 20 hit movies featuring accountants.

Taking the list away, I could see that movies teach the world 10 interesting lessons about accountants.

1) Accountants are counting machines.

Example: In Stranger Than Fiction, you can tell that Will Ferrell is playing an accountant, because he counts everything all the time, including the number of strokes he uses to brush his teeth and the number of steps from his apartment to his bus stop.

(Not that the character is stereotyped or anything.)

2) Accountants are short and wimpy.

In Central Intelligence, Kevin Hart is a nervous accountant who gets mixed up with his opposite, a big brave espionage agent played by Dwayne Johnson. Yes, The Rock is supplied by Hollywood as the very opposite of what an accountant should look like.

3) Accountants are unable to find love by themselves.

In Hitch, for example, Kevin James plays an accountant who struggles to romance his rich and beautiful client because he is too shy. (Surely that should be considered “too ethical”?)

4) Accountants are victims.

In the classic ghost stories of Qing dynasty Chinese writer Pu Songling, the main character was a student – but in the hit Cantonese movie A Chinese Ghost Story, he is some sort of mild-mannered government auditor collecting back taxes before the ghosts come for him.

5) Accountants help the bad guys.

There were loads of movies in this category, with perhaps the best example being Joe Pesci’s money-laundering accountant in the Lethal Weapon movie series.

6) Accountants are nerds.

Going back to stereotypes, consider the short guy with the glasses in the team of Ghostbusters. The character, played by Rick Moranis, was an accountant.

BUT on the positive side…

7) Accountants are super-capable.

In The Shawshank Redemption, the accountant not only reorganizes the prison in which he is locked, but works out how to escape AND take revenge. Take that!

8) Accountants bring stability.

In The Royal Tenenbaums, the crazy family is ultimately kept in check by Danny Glover, playing a calm father-figure accountant.

9) Accountants are heroes.

In The Untouchables, which is based on a true story, cops try numerous ways to catch gangster Al Capone and fail – but then they consult a tax accountant who draws up a plan which enables them to finally jail the bad guy.

10) Accountants are normal, likeable, funny human beings.

I only found one example of this.

In The Producers, an accountant named Leo Bloom gets caught up in a fraudulent scheme. But he is portrayed as a good-hearted character who agrees for the sake of friendship, and moviegoers can’t help but feel good towards him – even as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble.

Still, one way or another, the movie industry likes to use accountants as archetypal figures in what usually end up as morality tales.

The good accountant, Leo Bloom, ends up in jail. Everything’s a warning.

Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices

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