Jim Cummings has been steadily making his name as a multi-hyphenated filmmaker. His previous cinematic projects Thunder Road and The Werewolf of Snow Hollow have proved Cummings to be an interesting new talent. Having been solo on those two outings, for his third feature, The Beta Test, Cummings shares the writing and directing duties with best friend PJ McCabe this time around. The story follows Hollywood agent Jordan (Cummings) as his life gets complicated after he is invited to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter with a complete stranger.
The Beta Test is an expertly constructed combination of Hollywood satire, drama, and erotic thriller that never forgets to be funny. We’ve seen this fusion of comedy with other genres from Cummings before, but here, like Jordan, everything is amped up to the max. The humour here has a thicker, darker undercurrent to it. It’s a dark and sarcastic comedy that runs through the veins of The Beta Test, the type that will appeal to fans of Mary Harron’s American Psycho. In a lot of ways Jordan himself is like a Hollywood version of Patrick Bateman, with Cummings nailing that privileged poser on the brink of mental collapse brilliantly.
Playing a stressed-out character is familiar territory for Cummings, but Jordan has a meaner exterior to both The Wolf of Snow Hollow’s John and Thunder Road’s Jim. John and Jim both seem like decent men who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances, whereas Jordan is almost parasitic. Cummings’ extra toothy performance accentuates the character’s vampiric nature. Jordan is a completely shallow husk of a human, one whose outwardly energetic and enthusiastic facade masks the plain fact that he is empty on the inside. Watching his world unravel is oddly enjoyable, it’s hard not to feel as though some karmic justice is at play.
The story holds plenty of mysteries: who sent Jordan the invitation for the hotel hook-up? How did they get his details? What do these people want? Each mystery sends the highly-strung worker ever closer to the edge, ensuring that the inevitable fireworks are an entertaining display of anger, despair, and resignation. Cummings may not be playing law enforcement for a change, but Jordan’s attempts at playing detective to this Hitchcockian enigma are thoroughly entertaining. The viewer can’t help but get as caught up as Jordan and the answers given open up an abundance of ideas to discuss afterwards.
Alongside this noir-tinged mystery is a targeted takedown of the Hollywood system. Cummings and McCabe are unafraid to not sugarcoat the industry that so many perceive as a dream world. The film industry is a brutally tough one to work in, especially if you’re towards the bottom of the ladder, and the pair are honest about this. There’s an awkward and uncomfortable exchange between Jordan and his new assistant, his demeanor and language towards her is toxic, and yet it is based on an actual incident experienced by someone working at an agency. As part of the research process, Cummings and McCabe spoke to several people who worked for agency organisations and by transplanting these real encounters into the film, The Beta Test feels even more dangerous.
Informed editing (another role undertaken by Cummings) keeps the pacing punchy, the ninety minutes flying by as the narrative races through this dark and exciting setting. Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow liked to use longer takes and a slower rhythm, in The Beta Test Cumming and McCabe replicate the fast and frantic industry of film and pull the viewer through the plot so fast that it will almost leave you breathless. The writing and directing pair write their script out loud, each taking on the personas of all the characters, painstakingly working on getting every element just right before committing to paper. This technique is utilised perfectly here as it’s a word heavy piece; Jordan speaks at Entourage’s Ari Gold’s speed. A common pitfall of movie dialogue is that it doesn’t sound quite right coming out of character’s mouths, but the prep work here, with McCabe and Cummings speaking lines out loud rather than just tapping them onto a screen, gives the words a powerful viscosity.
A bold performance from Cummings in front of the camera compliments the hard work that he and McCabe have poured into the film’s creation. The Beta Test has much to offer viewers whose humour and tastes skew to the darker side. A delicious fermentation of Hitchcock, American Psycho, and Entourage, The Beta Test is a seductively dark and deviously amusing film that titillates and tantalises.
The Beta Test is available in UK cinemas now.