The Beta Test, 2021.
Directed by Jim Cummings.
Starring Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Grace Applegate, Jessie Barr, Malin Barr, Jacqueline Doke, Wilky Lau, Grant Rosenmeyer, Laura Coover, and Keith Powell.
A married Hollywood agent receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter and becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data.
In the middle of busy day-to-day Hollywood agent duties and marriage preparations, Jim Cummings’ Jordan receives a mysterious purple envelope with a letter inside inquiring and instructing how to meet a stranger for an anonymous, kinky one-night-stand. Among the details to fill out are Jordan’s personal kinks, of which the first one he checks off is “dominant.” That’s true about the character in theory, but it sure as hell is not showing as we observe his everyday life. Jordan fails at commanding respect as talent and coworkers are often dismissive towards him; no one is really listening, all while craving power. There are also ongoing disputes with the WGA, further taking away his high-status corporate control, not to mention dealing with an ulcer problem. Forget persuasiveness and intimidation over others; Jordan’s own body is rebelling against him.
Writing and directing The Beta Test (with two fantastic works already on his resume in Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, this time writing alongside PJ McCabe), Jim Cummings once again has a firm grasp on absurd tone and his livewire Jim Carrey resembling protagonist. Inevitably caving and discreetly meeting the secret admirer, a montage shows the blindfolded sex (along with another strange fetish) intercut with how the experience boosts his domineering presence outside the bedroom. Jordan also now has a misplaced sense of confidence, hilariously under the impression that one of his female assistants said something sexual to him during a casual conversation. Even he begins to question if he hears what he wants to, subsequently starting another conversation with the same poor employee demanding her to say what he knows she said, only to make a total ass of himself in the process while acknowledging doing so (one of Jim Cummings’ most vital traits as an expressive comedic force wrapped up in dark social commentary). Eventually, he backs off for fear of canceling himself.
A suspenseful prologue also clarifies these envelopes’ sinister and dangerous side, as a Swedish woman phones the police fearing for her life. She is still brutally murdered, setting the stage of darker thematic elements at play. It also turns out that there’s a string of domestic violence related to the letters and the unknown sender. As Jordan catches on to these tragic incidents, he grows increasingly concerned about what this means for his own career, soon-to-be marriage (to Virginia Newcomb’s Caroline, and a relationship dynamic that could have used a bit more fleshing out), and reputation. During a climactic breakdown, he upsettingly explodes that “everyone in the industry wants to be Harvey Weinstein.” However, the character that Jordan confesses his mile-a-minute recent mistakes to is what really puts the satirical character study into a complicated web worth untangling.
The route there sees Jordan (while roping his friend PJ, as played by PJ McCabe, into the craziness) slipping into familiar character territory and generally making a fool of himself (multiple times, he tries to pass himself off as a police officer or private detective to amusing results, especially when called out on his bullshit) before arriving at scary truths centered on Internet privacy, dark web crimes, and data sold to the highest bidder. In the digital age, all of us are losing control and privacy. Jordan may be a charismatic slimeball of a Hollywood agent whose meltdowns are humorous, but he’s also somewhat offputting morally, so it’s practically a challenge met that the film comes up with a character more repulsive.
It’s truly impressive that Jim Cummings successfully pulls from all these different threads weaving them into something that’s not only coherent but well-balanced in terms of its genre shifts, even if it is a slightly messy and possibly overambitious piece. There is a stylish touch (especially the lighting, which takes on the life of its own as Jordan’s lust kicks in) with a pointed enough direction to know how seriously this should all be taken at any given moment. The Beta Test from Jim Cummings is yet another winner, cementing him as arguably one of the brightest and most scathing dark comedy maestros working today.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com