The Beta Test (2021)
Written and Directed by Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe
It’s not a stretch to say the face of Hollywood has changed in the last few years. This is due to movements that push for transparency around those who wield power in the media industry, particularly around accusations of sexual assault and rape. The labor movement has also been calling the film industry to task for the lack of fair compensation and overworking as studios bank billions streaming content 24/7. The face of wide release theatrical movies has also changed, so smaller, character-focused films get ignored for big-budget blockbuster content, often attached to a cinematic universe. This chaotic shift is at the center of Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe’s The Beta Test, a dark horror-comedy that skillfully weaves these elements together.
Jordan (Cummings) is a talent agent whose firm doesn’t represent performers; instead, they buy lucrative IPs and then license them to production companies. They are currently trying to fight the Writer’s Guild, who want increased compensation from streaming services. But the thing pulling Jordan out of the meetings and into his own head is the mysterious purple envelope without a return address. The card inside invites him to an anonymous no-strings sexual encounter. He just needs to complete a short survey about sex acts he likes and drop the return envelope in the mail. Jordan bites the bullet and goes through with the tryst but is blindfolded, as is the woman he has sex with. She sees him as he leaves, but when he turns around, she’s lost in the shadows, and the door closes. This leads to an obsession with uncovering who that woman was and who sent him the envelope. It quickly becomes clear Jordan was not the only person targeted, which is happening to a small sample of people in the city.
Cummings has cornered the market on playing white men on the verge of a neurotic breakdown. The character of Jordan is a delightful figure to see go through this as he’s intentionally meant to represent much of the bad things revealed about Hollywood. He’s certainly not at the Weinstein level of monstrous, but he is definitely presented as an easy person to despise. There’s no sense of chemistry or attraction from him to his fiancee. He berates one of his employees due to his own insecurities. When he’s attempting to uncover the truth behind his encounter, Jordan lies about who he is and even jumps a couple people. Jordan feels like he’s always smiling through gritted teeth and a clenched jaw, forever on the precipice of a mental collapse.
For Jordan, his life is the meticulous curation of a fantasy. He’s leasing the Tesla he claims to own. Being engaged is more of a status symbol than something he cares about. As his fiancee is preparing for their wedding, Jordan simply can’t be bothered to even pay attention as she talks about details. When a potential new client is brought to the firm’s attention, Jordan trots out his fakest grin and glad-handing only to be made a fool by said potential client. When he’s out with his fiancee and friends, Jordan can’t help but zone out while staring at other women, contemplating if they would make for a good side piece. There must always be a deal, whether business or sexual going on for him. The promise of a no-strings encounter is too good an opportunity to pass up for someone like Jordan.
I appreciated that the film focused on Jordan and his character arc rather than a plot-heavy conspiracy movie. In other hands, this would have been a script full of shocking twists that pushed credulity, instead Cummings & McCabe make sure everything follows how this one man reacts and the actions he takes out of desperation & obsession. I can easily see people complaining that his fiancee is underdeveloped, but it makes narrative sense because we see her from his perspective for most of the film. The finale is where we suddenly get more of a sense of who she is and hints at someone much more in control than Jordan realizes.
What kept me from completely loving the dark humor of the movie was the production value. I don’t think Cummings is a bad filmmaker, but a film like this needs a slicker, refined look. What we get is relatively flat production design which I didn’t think would be the case after the promising opening scene. There are moments of clever editing, but the cinematography is very unsurprising. What kept me so engaged was Cummings, his body and face exuding the strain Jordan is feeling as things get worse and worse for him. I hope this filmmaker gets larger budgets in the future because I’d love for the technical aspects of the movies to be at an even higher level of technical prowess. The stories and his performances deserve it.