The Beta Test is a bold advancement for Jim Cummings as a filmmaker, supplementing his films’ familiar character with greater formal skill and precise critique.
Over the course of now three feature films, Jim Cummings has established himself as the premier chronicler of a very contemporary, very specific kind of failson cringe comedy. As the writer, director, and star of Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings created two indelible portraits of barely-contained neurotic energy shot through with a large streak of absurd, faux hyper-masculinity. It seems very pertinent that in both films he portrays police officers, symbols of institutional power and state-sanctioned violence, and then tears down their facades, revealing barely functional, middle-aged divorcees prone to fits of drunken rage and bumbling incoherence. He’s a hilarious performer to boot, and as his own director, is particularly attuned to capturing his weird physicality onscreen, allowing scenes to play out in length before sharp edits reveal a punchline or exasperated reaction shot.
After a startling prologue that features a particularly brutal murder, The Beta Test introduces Cummings’ latest creation, Jordan Hines, a wannabe big-shot Hollywood talent agent who shares no small amount of DNA with Cummings’ prior unhinged male oddities. Jordan is engaged to the lovely Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), and he goes about planning their wedding with the same passive-aggressive nice-guy shtick he uses on potential clients. Jordan and his pal PJ (PJ McCabe, credited here as co-writer and co-director with Cummings) are trying to land a Chinese businessman for their agency, regaling him with rhapsodic tales of packaging deals, access to loads of corporate IP, and cross-platform synergy. Naturally, Jordan seems pretty bad at this job. In the midst of this, a purple envelope arrives in the mail, and enclosed is a letter that offers a no-strings attached, totally anonymous, one-time sexual encounter. All one has to do is fill out the enclosed preference card (male or female, dom or sub, etc.), return it, and wait. Jordan seems sure that it’s some kind of joke and quickly tosses it out, only to soon find his imagination is running wild, overwhelmed by the thought that every woman he comes across could be a secret admirer or potential conquest. Before long, he’s digging the letter out of the garbage and returning the questionnaire. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Jordan goes through with the act; arriving at a predetermined location, he dons a face covering, enters a dark hotel room, and sleeps with a masked woman. After the encounter ends, Jordan is elated, but the mood sours quickly; he’s soon checking his mail every day, visibly frustrated that another purple envelope hasn’t arrived. This frustration curdles into obsession, and Jordan becomes fixated on tracking down the masked woman from the hotel. Meanwhile, Cummings occasionally cuts away to a series of brief vignettes of couples arguing, each of which ends in a murder that mirrors the film’s opening scenes.
Cummings has referred to The Wolf of Snow Hollow as “dumb Zodiac,” which could fairly make The Beta Test his “dumb The Game” by way of a “dumb The Social Network.” Cummings and McCabe weave their disparate narrative threads together into an intricate mystery encompassing the internet, data-mining conspiracies, and rough sex, with Jordan clumsily play-acting private detective all over town and alienating Caroline. It’s part Giallo, part ‘90s erotic thriller, and very much a brutal condemnation of a particular kind of egotistical white male who believes himself the center of the universe. Cummings’ long-winded monologues, stringing words together in an aggressive stream of consciousness that gets angrier and angrier, are well countered by McCabe’s more laid-back persona (he’s kind of a prick too, just more reasonable about it). Things eventually come to a head that we won’t spoil here, but suffice it to say there’s a barbed stinger at the end of The Beta Test, where the full scope of the eponymous test is revealed, and Jordan faces a reckoning of sorts. It’s a bold advancement for Cummings as a filmmaker, with precise compositions and some complicated sequence shots that may or may not be the contribution of McCabe. Taken as a trilogy of sorts, Cummings’ films map out a very precise critique of the dark recesses at the center of so-called “nice guys,” who only need the slightest nudge to careen over the ledge into violence. As Caroline says to Jordan at one point, “It must be exhausting pretending to be you.” When that facade crumbles, what’s left is a hollowed-out shell of a man who has to decide what to do with himself when his carefully-constructed world collapses around him. It’s a precipice that The Beta Test captures with cutting precision. It’s funny, too.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.