Sunday, October 26, 2014

Accountants in the Movies: the Next Big Thing

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2005)

Today I come out of the closet and make to you this confession – I am not the man I seem to be. Well, I already have to correct myself, for I have no idea how these weekly columns make me seem. I’ve never received any marriage proposals from it, to cite just one possible benchmark. But anyway, the point is that the column doesn’t actually take me a week to write, and doesn’t finance the life to which I’ve become accustomed. Or even the life to which my dog has become accustomed. So I work in the securities industry. And as if that wasn’t already enough of a blow to my credibility, I’m an accountant – I have a CA. I hasten to add that my job doesn’t actually involve much accounting; I’ve evolved beyond that. But nevertheless, by my admitting this much, the damage is done. And I only ask that if you’re already thinking my modest credibility is gone, and that this is the end of the relationship, then remember it’s all for the homeless.

You Can Do Better

Some people in the office know I write these columns and they know about my interest in movies generally, so I regularly get asked for questions and opinions. I don’t really like it – the conversations usually pivot on pretty low-grade films, and I’d rather keep the two worlds separate anyway. A couple of years ago someone suggested it might be good to have an article in our in-house newsletter about movies that carry a message about accounting and securities oversight, and this was handed on to me. I had no enthusiasm for the task at all, and sent back a deliberately lame two-line email saying: “I guess there are some movies about financial shenanigans that could be stretched into a broader message of sorts. They include Trading Places, Rollover ...more generally things like Midnight Run and The Untouchables.”

I got a response saying: “Come on Jack - you're a fringe film critic --I know you can do better than this -- Wasn't Too Beautiful for You with Gerard Depardieu about insider trading -- or was that another French movie of about the same vintage about a man and his secretary?  How about Diary of a Young Stock Broker with that guy who always played stockbrokers as dweebs? How about Born Yesterday --corporate governance?  How about Face in the Crowd - ok it's really about the corrupt confluence of business and politics, but it's one of the best movies ever made.”

This was already way too much time than I wanted to spend on the subject, so I ignored it and fortunately it went away. But recently I wrote an extended article on Rollover (see the current issue of CineAction) and in the course of that was thinking a little more about cinema’s avoidance of financial matters. And then I received an issue of a magazine called The Bottom Line, an accounting journal. It’s pretty dry stuff even for accountants, but I guess they’re jazzing it up because it contained a supplement called The Accounting Life, with a cover promising (and I am not making this up): “Interior Design, Casual Clothing, Cool Gadgets, Accounting Stars, Health, Etiquette, Wine.” (Somehow they forgot the great sex). And inside I found nirvana – a two-page article on accountants in the cinema.

Spectrum of Human Experience

Mark Wolfe wrote it, and did a great job on it. He points out that whereas every second movie seems to prominently feature an attorney in one way or another, the accountant seems like a more shadowy presence (along with most of the other “normal” jobs that people have). But, he says, “I was surprised at the range of films that took advantage of characters portraying accountants…What I have found is that accountants roles represent the broad spectrum of human experience. They are mob bookkeepers, con-artists, insane schemers, devious murderers, crooks, mild-mannered lovers, shy intellectuals, average Joes – and excessive geeks.”

Man, that really is the broad spectrum of human experience. Sadly, the spectrum seems to become particularly packed at the more depressing end. Wolfe’s article singles out 24 movies, from which I offer the following extracts: “duplicitous accountant” (The Main Event), “bumbling adulterer and accountant” (Hannah and her Sisters), “scheming accountants” (Small Time Crooks), “nutty accountant” (The Producers), “inept accountant” (Rocky V), “perfidious accountant” (The Addams Family). Oh, and “accountant…who is left to frequent a strip club” (Exotica).

In a number of others, the accountant is barely a character in the film at all, but merely a tool or device. This covers the accountant in Gloria “who gets whacked at the beginning of the film,” the accountant in Confidence on whom Edward Burns pulls a fast one, thus pulling in the accountant’s boss Dustin Hoffman, and most poignantly, from The Road To Perdition, a “poor, timid soul…inadvertently killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight in a hotel room.”

That leaves ten or so in which the accountant is a notable player and in which his profession as an accountant is at least somewhat significant to the shaping of his character. I would say his or her, but the only female in the bunch is Jennifer Connelly in The Hot Spot (who knew? – this by the way substantially misrepresents the profession, which is fast moving toward equality). Among the highlights – Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List, Charles Grodin in Midnight Run and in Dave. And perhaps preeminently, Johnny Depp in Dead Man, the rare accountant whose calling leads him into somewhere resonant and mystical (Depp also played an accountant in Nick Of Time, thus establishing himself perhaps as the unacknowledged cinematic standard bearer for the profession).

True Essence of Accounting

For completeness, other movies cited are The Apartment (although at the risk of sounding elitist, the Jack Lemmon character was not so much a true accountant but an “accounting clerk”). Bowfinger, Ghostbusters, The Royal Tenenbaums, D.O.A., Heaven Can Wait. Which is not a bad list overall. And at least it yielded one Oscar winner (Michael Caine in Hannah).

But since I’ve now dragged myself out of the closet, I guess I can’t make myself sound any geekier if I admit that none of these get at the true essence of being an accountant, which (at least the way I like to think I do it) is much more creative, strategic and varied than those outside the profession realize. And none of them get at the role accountants play in maintaining our capital markets, in safeguarding our economic destinies. There are so many great untold accounting stories out there.

But I’m not going to be the one telling them...

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