2021 | rated R | starring Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe | written & directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe | 1 hr 33 mins |
The third feature film from Jim Cummings, The Beta Test marks the third genre the actor/writer/director has used his indie innovation to explore. After conquering bittersweet cringe comedy with Thunder Road and a subversive genre werewolf movie in The Wolf of Snow Hollow (my favorite film of 2020), Cummings along with co-writer/director/star PJ McCabe, takes a dip into the 90s sexual paranoia thriller and a swipe at Hollywood agencies with Beta Test. It’s a snappy, biting film, tonally all over the map, buzzing with life and again allows Cummings an opportunity to clench his jaw, chew up the scenery and destroy the character he inhabits in the most unflattering ways.
Jordan Hines (Cummings) is a high strung Hollywood agent on the verge of a very big deal that will put their agency on the map, when he suddenly receives a mysterious purple envelope in his PO box promising a no-strings-attached sexual encounter with an anonymous admirer in a hotel room. Assured this will not affect his upcoming wedding plans to fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), Jordan dons a blindfold and accepts the proposal only to have his tightly controlled world slowly unravel under curiosity and paranoia over who the woman was behind the blindfold and who is behind the proposal.
One of the fun things about Thunder Road and Snow Hollow, was Cummings’ apt ability to unravel the mental stability of his lead character over the challenges of the story. Even Thunder which starts in an outrageous jumping off point escalates to an almost unbearable level of cringe. Beta Test on the other hand has no such progression, Jordan is an abrasive nut job from the get-go, short-tempered with his secretary and barely able to hide his distain for picking out wedding invitations. Unlike Cummings’ more lovable oaf protagonists, Jordan is the villain and satirical target here, with the film enacting some Hollywood agent revenge and delighting in tormenting him for our amusement.
The Hollywood agency element of the movie is it’s sharpest, and the reason to see this movie. The film pulls no punches depicting a talent agency system not bolstered and cleansed by the #MeToo movement and destruction of Harvey Weinstein, but confused by it, unable to figure out the rules of a social reality that has intruded in the abusive boy’s club they’ve operated in forever (one where boys aren’t spared the abuse as well) . While on the surface, they churn out movies with female empowerment messages, The Beta Test is the first film to say out loud what everyone is thinking – that nothing in Hollywood has changed. That the female empowerment posturing is all a superficial act and behind closed doors guys like Jordan are clenching their fists and biting their tongue at the idea of not bullying their subordinates. There is a new Harvey Weinstein somewhere, we just don’t know who it is now. A movie like this could only come from outside of the studio system and bravo to Cummings and McCabe for taking this by the horns.
It’s the thriller element of the film that gets pretty clunky. Beginning with a 6 minute scene that includes an opening kill like a slasher movie, the script is unclear with it’s intentions, trying to tie the notion of an Eyes Wide Shut secret sex society with violent ends, blackmail and the easy destruction of our lives by hackers on the internet. The film even does Citizenfour style explanation for how Big Tech forms a profile of us based on our Likes and views that is, admittedly well done, but nothing new. As the hacker is not blackmailing Jordan it’s unclear why he’s going to such lengths to track them, and the woman, down and what the threat is. Each individual scene works well – I laughed out loud at a scene where Cummings just walks into frame and accosts a courier, his numerous attempts to pretend to be a cop and his final gas mask confrontation – but none of it really gels smoothly together.
I hate to say that, because I’ve become a fan of Cummings and I really wanted to love this movie. The Beta Test is a bit fuzzy and disjointed, reaching for a genre thriller it can’t get it’s arms around, but it absolutely excels at the Hollywood agent satire. It’s the sharpest satire of the year (hear that, Don’t Look Up). It also caters perfectly to Cummings’ ability to deliver lengthy, challenging monologues that expose his characters unravelling. He does that in Thunder Road and Snow Hollow and he delivers a doozy here, as if trying to top himself with each film. It’s a fun movie and I still cant’ wait to see what these guys tackle next.