THE BETA TEST (2021)

November 8, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director-editor-actor Jim Cummings’ 2018 film THUNDER ROAD was quite popular on the festival circuit, and Cummings is back with another story of a stressed out man … at a time when the world doesn’t much care about stressed out men, especially those who carry themselves with a heavy dose of self-importance. Cummings and co-writer, co-director, and co-star PJ McCabe have delivered a satire on traditional Hollywood in the shape of a whodunit with dark comedy that teeters into thriller territory.

Cummings stars as Jordan Hines, a high-octane Hollywood agent who talks as quickly and incessantly as he smiles, and neither are sincere. Jordan is an unlikable guy who belittles the support staff and mostly patronizes his fiancé Caroline (Virginia Newcomb, THE DEATH OF DICK LONG, 2019), while kissing the proverbial tushes of prospective clients. One day a mysterious elegant purple envelope shows up in Jordan’s mail. It’s an invitation to meet up with an admirer for anonymous, no-strings attached sex (as if that’s even possible when someone has targeted you). He initially trashes the envelope, before reconsidering.

After the encounter, Jordan’s personality becomes unhinged and his world begins to crumble. He wants to know who the woman was and why he was chosen. His desperate obsession with locating the mystery woman means his work suffers, as does his relationship with Caroline. Jordan’s fantasy has turned into a nightmare that causes him to see and hear things – and he’s unable to discern his visions from reality. This fast-talking agent teeters between viable and obsolete, and an “I’m so excited” montage fits perfectly into the persona of a man who lacks sincerity, doesn’t know himself, and is oblivious to the needs of others.

There are some comparisons here to Jeremy Piven’s character in “Entourage” and Patrick Bateman/Christian Bale in AMERICAN PSYCHO, but Cummings make the character his own. The comedy is dark and satirical, but the film never seems sure of itself as it bounds between erotic thriller (with very little eroticism), a ‘who is she’ mystery, and commentary on how a certain type of individual is no longer welcome in a post-Harvey proper society.

The opening sequence is no slow start, as it features a brutally violent murder – an incident that doesn’t find its place until near the end of the film. Also included here is cautionary tale on the dark web, and the dangers of social media and the internet, although this feels like an add-on, rather than a fully developed sub-plot.  Virginia Newcomb does get to deliver the film’s best line, “I’m not insulting you. I’m describing you”. Also giving the story a contemporary feel is the emphasis on packaging deals, which is a relevant topic in the ongoing discussions with industry unions. There is a lot tossed in here, and some parts work better than others.

WATCH THE TRAILER