The Beta Test
Hollywood agent Jordan Hines (Jim Cummings) is hanging on by a thread in an industry threatening to wipe out his reason for existence when he finds a most unusual invitation in his mailbox. The purple envelope with no return address or postmark contains an elegant card offering him an anonymous sexual encounter at The Royal Hotel on a specific date. After waffling ever so slightly, he goes, only to become suspicious of everyone he meets afterwards while his perplexed fiancée Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) wonders just why he is so erratic in “The Beta Test.”
Laura's Review: C+
Jim Cummings (“The Wolf of Snow Hollow”) is building a career with neurotic portrayals of men whose shortcomings are amplified by their careers. For his third outing, writing and directing with PJ McCabe (who plays Jordan’s confessional colleague PJ) he ditches law enforcement for Hollywood hucksterism and he and his brand of twitchy insecurity curdled with toxic masculinity couldn’t be more suited to his subject. But while Cummings’ performance is annoyingly spot on, he has yet to overcome a weakness crating story.
In a modern apartment, a Swede rants about reality television before his girlfriend confesses to having replied to an anonymous invitation, her actions making her realize how unhappy she was. He stabs her to death. We then see a computer screen full of names followed by numbers scrolling by. It will take a while before we realize this couple lives in Hollywood.
We meet Jordan on a couples date with PJ and his wife Lauren (Jessie Barr), PJ ordering champagne to celebrate having reeled in a client with a pun via Venmo, the outrageous tactic outlining just how desperate they’ve become. Hines operates with bald-faced lies, reporting an advantageous meeting with prospective client Raymond (Wilky Lau) after his obsequious overtures were met with mockery. Misogynistic behavior is rampant, not only in how he treats his new assistant Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke, "Thunder Road"), but with the lies he feeds the increasingly fed up Carolyn. Then he indulges in his blindfolded encounter, a heady experience which sours the minute he leaves the room. With only a shadowy glimpse of his anonymous partner, he imagines he sees her everywhere he goes and is not above making a fool of himself confronting strangers. Poor Jaclyn is in for a torrent of hysterical abuse when an innocent remark is misinterpreted. Jordan becomes so paranoid, he begins to investigate, first tracing that purple envelope to a local stationer. Then more people begin to die.
If that prologue hints at a media conspiracy, it is a MacGuffin, the couple coming into play only as one in a list of many. Cummings is going after something more globally satiric here, but he overreaches, the revelation behind his carefully crafted mystery a letdown, Carolyn’s continued faith in him a head scratcher. “The Beta Test” is full of good ideas that Cummings fails to bring together in a satisfactory way, but if his outrageous performance fails to fuel his film to the finish line, it at least gets us half the way there.
Robin's Review: C
Jordan (Jim Cummings) is a hard-charging, though none too bright, media exec on the verge of success with a lucrative contract. He is engaged to the lovely Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) and life is good. Then, he opens a purple envelope delivered by a courier and it is an invitation for sex with a total stranger, no strings attached, in "The Beta Test."
A couple of notes about "The Beta Test:" Jim Cummings gives one of his best performances of a man in way over his head who gets more and more manic in his ever-expanding attempt to have it all as he risks losing everything. His performance is a one-man, one-note extravaganza that, even at a brief 1:33 runtime, goes on far too long.
Jordan is a schemer and, as the story plays out, not as talented as he thinks as he strives to have it all but ends up with nothing. It is a tragic story of self-manufactured angst that is fun to watch, for a little while, but that is about it. A shorter, more concise version that pairs Jordan mania with fleshed out, instead of two-dimensional, supporting characters would have made for a better movie short.
Oh, and the film's title, "The Beta Test," is misleading to say the least. There is some techie stuff buried under Cumming's frenzied performance that could rectify that. But, it is so beneath the surface of the story as to be near non-existent. The writing-directing team of Cummings and P.J. McCabe (who also co-stars as Jordan's business partner, PJ) need to brush up on their writing skills, 'cause manic does not a movie make.
IFC Films opens "The Beta Test" in theaters on 11/5/2021.