With The Beta Test, writing / directing / acting wunderkind Jim Cummings has cemented himself as a filmmaker whose range is somehow both impressively expansive and oddly limited. Cummings’ first film, 2018’s Thunder Road, opened with a 12-minute, single-take scene in which a disgraced police officer (played by Cummings himself, of course) has a total meltdown while singing Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” at his mother’s funeral. The sequence is painfully awkward given the character’s utter lack of social awareness. He breaks down crying, calls himself stupid, confesses that he’s dyslexic and displays some of the worst dance moves imaginable for a funeral setting, but his vulnerability is undeniably touching. The scene is a bravura one-man show, sure, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of the type of character Cummings insists on centering his films around: pathetic, wounded man-children desperate to redeem themselves but too weak to do so on their own.
Last year, Cummings plucked that same character archetype from the indie-dramedy Thunder Road and into his off-kilter, werewolf-horror/dark-comedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow to equally effective results. And now, once again, he’s placed that person at the center of his third movie, The Beta Test, a queasy Lifetime-style thriller about sex scandals and toxic Hollywood work environments. Despite featuring P.J. McCabe as a co-writer and director this time around, this feels just as much from the mind of Cummings as his last two features. The movie itself is an overall engaging thriller, complete with a compelling high-concept premise and stellar performances, but fans of Cummings may feel a sense of diminishing returns here as they’re treated to the same character arc for a third time.
Jordan (Cummings) is an agent at a major Hollywood studio who, even right when we meet him, seems to be teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown. His company is losing clients at an alarming rate thanks to a dispute with the Writers Guild of America, and his profession’s relevancy is being deeply interrogated in the wake of Harvey Weinstein (mentioned by name several times) and the #MeToo movement. In a hilarious early scene, a desperate Jordan tries to reassure a client that all the toxic elements of his agency “left when Harvey did.” Indeed, Jordan operates in that mode of phony sincerity at pretty much all times, and that includes his interactions with his unamused fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).
Thus, when an anonymous invitation for a no-strings-attached sexual encounter at the Royal Hotel arrives in his mailbox, Jordan likely not only sees an opportunity to get laid but to let go of his inhibitions for an evening. Hell, there’s even a checklist of his sexual kinks for him to fill out beforehand. How thoughtful! Alas, while the encounter does go off without a hitch, Jordan’s life continues to unravel, and he’s eventually compelled to get to the bottom of the mysterious mail invitation.
The fun to be had with The Beta Test is witnessing Jordan’s plummet towards insanity as he harasses and screams his way towards the truth. Jordan has no qualms wielding his privilege to get what he wants despite his insistence that he’s not “one of those” Hollywood agents. When he mishears a new female assistant’s remark and suspects she may be in on the sex scheme, he publicly berates her and threatens her job security until it’s clear he’s mistaken. And that’s one of the least troubling confrontations Jordan has throughout the movie.
Cummings should be commended for playing characters who are so outwardly irredeemable, and The Beta Test is certainly his most toxic variation to date. Like in Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, this character has spent years burning bridges with everyone in his life and now a reckoning for his behavior has come. The Beta Test obviously comes with some added commentary that a reckoning for this type of person has come in the real Hollywood as well, but that can’t entirely make up for the fact that we’ve already seen Cummings go down this road twice in the past three years, albeit in different genre territories. Sure, the scenery has changed, but the destination remains the same.