Years after the Enron and WorldCom implosions put a spotlight on the work of accountants (apparently proving the adage that any publicity is good publicity as the ranks of students entering the field swelled), Hollywood looks like it might be on the verge of offering the profession something just as valuable -- cultural cache. Over the summer, the television series “The Office” whet the appetites of loyal viewers by offering short, Internet-exclusive webisodes that served as a segue to the season premiere. Taken collectively, they add up to a full half-hour episode. And they star none other than a trio of the show’s supporting cast, “The Accountants.” Earlier this year, the same network, NBC, announced that one of its mid-season replacement shows will be produced by late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien. Starring O’Brien’s former sidekick, Andy Richter, the premise of “Andy Barker, P.I.” has an accountant setting up shop in an office formerly belonging to a private investigator and panicking as no clients come by. It’s only a matter of time until he begin taking on the cases of clients searching for the office’s previous occupant. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say hilarity is sure to soon ensue. As for the silver screen, I keep hearing about the next movie vehicle for comedian Will Ferrell. “Stranger than Fiction” stars Ferrell as Internal Revenue Service auditor Harold Crick. The gist of the plot is that Crick finds his dull life beingchronicled in real-time by a narrator that only he can hear; he’s suitably shocked when he overhears that events have already been set in motion that will lead to his “imminent death.” Slated to open Nov. 5, the film is rounded out with a wacky, albeit star-studded, cast. Emma Thompson is the has-been author unwittingly writing her latest novel about Crick, Dustin Hoffman is an English professor Crick enlists for help, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a government-hating bakery owner who doubles as both Crick’s love interest and his IRS client. And, of course, Queen Latifah rounds out the cast, playing a publishing house assistant whose task is to help the author find a way to fend off her writer’s block and kill off Crick. It would seem to be a golden age for accountants in pop culture; the profession, by my recollection, has never had a particularly stellar standing at the box office. I decided to do a bit of Internet research on the subject the other day and was rewarded with the discovery of two sites offering fairly solid round ups of accounting-centered roles: W. David Albrecht, a professor based in Bowling Green, Ohio, maintains an “Accountants in the Movies” page at www.profalbrecht.com/publish/movies/, while the Web site of Boston-based John Schachter + Associates Inc. has a page dedicated to “Accountants in Movies & TV,” accessible at www.johnschachter.com/Accountants_in_Movies.htm. Some of my personal favorites who’ve taken on the profession for the service of their craft:
- Rick Moranis, in what must be described as a cult hero judging by the handful of accountants I’ve meet in recent years who still make reference to the nerd accountant, Lewis Tulley, he played in the “Ghostbusters” (1984) film and its sequels;
- Cher, who opens “Moonstruck” (1987) as a bookkeeper preparing the tax return for a funeral home; she fits into the stereotype of an accountant for the film’s first half, before her orderly existence is turned upside down by her fiancé’s brooding, maimed younger brother played by Nicolas Cage; and, perhaps least critically acclaimed,
- Kirstie Alley, as a young staff accountant for a posh CPA firm, who has to cope with the awkward situation of having an affair and a baby, with one of her married clients, in “Look Who's Talking” (1989). In addition to sharing screen time with a pre-comeback John Travolta, she’s also forced to go on a blind date with possibly the worst stereotype of a CPA ever imagined.
In 1994, the University of North Dakota’s Victoria Beard took up the issue in a scholarly article that was published in Accounting, Organizations and Society, “Popular Culture and Professional Identity: Accountants in the Movies.” Beard starts off her paper by noting that, “an indiscriminate lumping together of occupations into the generic movie accountant is forgivable because, likely as not, it reflects the level at which the audience understands the work of the accountant.” According to the article from 1957 to 1994, accountants appeared as major characters in 16 popular movies, nine of which were released since 1980 -- so perhaps the latest spate of accounting-centered characters is a return to the golden years. She says that while accountants may be scarce in leading character roles, when they do appear in films they perform three distinct dramatic functions:
- Stock comic characters designed to manifest stereotypes about the profession (humor);
- Complex personalities whose identity as accountants is supportive of their characterization; and,
- Intermediaries to introduce technical information needed to resolve the plot.
If nothing else, thinking about CPAs on film has been a fun diversion as I’ve returned from a brief vacation. Sadly, I wasted a good deal of time yesterday trying to track down the clip from 1983’s “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” wherein 10 minutes of screen time are devoted to the aging male staff accountants of the Crimson Permanent Assurance Co. -- the CPA Co. – which are under threat of layoff, and rebel against their young corporate bosses to become pirates. Armed with green visors, paper clip necklaces and weapons made of office equipment I remember them launching upon the “high seas of international finance” and engaging in a Gilbert & Sullivan-esque musical number. And that got my thinking of my more recent delight, at seeing Kevin James, as geeky booty-shaking, inhaler-snorting tax accountant Albert Brennaman in 2005’s “Hitch,” not only wins the girl, but drinks his coffee from a mug bearing the logo of the American Institute of CPAs. I’m not an accountant, but it’s always pleasant to see a profession I’m so involved with get its due in the public eye -- especially when that’s done with a bit of humor. I’m looking forward to seeing “Stranger than Fiction” (the trailer can be viewed at www.sonypictures.com/movies/strangerthanfiction/). Whether the film helps Ferrell branch out a bit from his frat-boy comedic roots can be left to the movie critics, and whether the film is truthful to the life of IRS can be left to … well, the IRS auditors. But with a budget of just $38 million according to reports, I’m betting the film will succeed in something all accountants can support -- balancing the bottom line.
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