The Beta Test (2021)
Directors: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Screenwriters: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Starring: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcombe, PJ McCabe
As a beacon of hope for the independent filmmaking community, there is nobody more suited to the job of exposing Hollywood’s underbelly of odious corporate sucklers than Jim Cummings. After winning Best Narrative Feature at the 2018 SXSW Film Festival with his Kickstarter-funded, frenetic comedy-drama Thunder Road, Cummings proved that it was possible for amateur creators to kick past Hollywood’s money-hungry gatekeepers and use their talents to infiltrate the film industry. Since the debut of Thunder Road and his erratic comedy-horror follow-up feature, The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020), Cummings has become a beloved presence within independent film, his unrelenting passion and undeniable talent transcending the limitations of his budgets.
His newest feature, The Beta Test, while very much in the same vein in terms of energy as his two previous features, is a surprising step for Cummings as he continues to muscle his way into the industry. Co-written and co-directed by Cummings and PJ McCabe, the film follows Jordan (played by Cummings in yet another starring role), a soon to be married Hollywood talent agent whose polished exterior and dazzling white veneers suggest a life of wealth and success. Yet, although Jordan drives a Tesla, has access to a lavish expense account and screams “I’m excited” several times during every conversation, his flawless exterior is nothing but an elaborate charade. In fact, Jordan is floundering within Hollywood’s changing climate after the fall of Harvey Weinstein. With the Writers Guild of America fighting parasitic talent agents such as himself for power, Jordan has fewer opportunities to peddle his ‘package deals’ and capitalise on the film industry with ideas such as ‘rebooting Caddyshack with dogs’. On top of this, it isn’t even as if he can blow off steam by screaming at his female employees anymore, either.
Jordan’s life comes off the rails with the arrival of an ornate purple envelope, which contains an anonymous invitation to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter with ‘an admirer’ should he reply. After fretting about the invitation and its possible author, Jordan fills in the RSVP, checks off his desired kinks, mails it out and subsequently receives a second letter containing a hotel key card. Titillated at the idea of stepping into a forbidden world of sex and anonymity, he turns up to the designated hotel and shares one night of blindfolded passion with a complete stranger. However, after the encounter ends, the letters stop, and Jordan, having tasted universe-altering desire, becomes totally consumed by the question mark hanging over him and falls down an erotic, ‘Twilight Zone’ shaped rabbit hole full of murder, mystery, manipulation, data harvesting, consumerism, greed and luxury stationery.
A smattering of murderous subplots provides the backdrop for Jordan’s quest as he comes to realise he isn’t the only one to have received a mysterious proposition. There are people all over L.A. being brutally murdered after confessing their amorous adventures to their cuckolded partners. Consumed by this scary yet suspiciously sexy situation, Jordan eventually uncovers that ‘the internet’ uses his online footprint of clicks, likes and Facebook updates to profit from his desires, and he turns feral with frustration as he scrambles against the algorithms for power.
In his previous two features – playing a divorced, moustachioed, small-town cop with a crumbling relationship with his daughter and a spiralling werewolf hunter dealing with the impending death of his father – Cummings has exhibited a terrific knack for walking the thin line between comedy and tragedy. For such a typical looking, all-American guy, Cummings’ comedic timing has British sensibilities to it, mimicking the familiar deadpan, nonsensical sarcasm of Steve Coogan. Cummings has played small-fry cops with big old chips on their shoulders in both of his previous features, but with The Beta Test, he turns in his gun and badge for glitz and glam. We’re still dealing with the same thematic consequences of toxic masculinity, failure and depleting self-worth however – Jordan is a fraud and a con-man; his life is cool and seems put together on the exterior, but he’s driven by a sociopathic sense of ego and severe paranoia that is crumbling him from within. What people can perceive is his only concern: a peep inside his mouth reveals that only his visible teeth are white and healthy; his back molars are black and rotting.
While, as with his previous characters, we see him play a man very obviously coming undone, Cummings’ performance in The Beta Test is much more obviously internal. In Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, his characters are easily loveable. With Jordan, he delivers the same portrait of a frazzled man at his wit’s end, but there’s an insidious element creeping out of his core, which is an intriguing gamble to make as such an endearing on-screen presence. The obvious comparison is Jim Carrey, with whom Cummings shares an eerie resemblance in both appearance and physicality. There came the point in Carrey’s career when he traded in the comedic blockbusters for more esoteric work: Man on The Moon, The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and more recently, Kidding. While Carrey still got to peddle his usual shtick in these movies, his work in them feels much more valuable and gratifying to watch as a viewer. Cummings finds this same exact sweet spot, managing to get us on board with his unpredictable silliness while also offering deeper thematic meaning for each of us to chew on.
The Beta Test is a riveting watch and an enthralling thriller, with a chilling score that wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror. Unfortunately, it suffers from some tonal disparities throughout, with the string of violent murders and unnerving portrait of online consumerism failing to blend with Cummings’ scathing swipes at Hollywood elitism. Plus, the film might not work for anybody without an interest in the inner workings of Hollywood; this is certainly one for the cinephiles. For fans of this unique filmmaker’s work and those interested in the machinations of the film industry however, Cummings’ performance matched with The Beta Test’s neurotic hilarity, make it another hit from cinema’s self-made movie star.