Jim Cummings has become something of an indie film wunderkind, making low-budget, critically-acclaimed projects that hit festivals and reach the depths of Film Twitter, many members of which Cummings used to follow from his own account. Partnering with PJ McCabe to co-direct, co-write, and co-star in The Beta Test, Cummings’ latest feature concerns modern relationships. With Cummings taking the lead as Hollywood agent and resident douchebag Jordan, his story and performance rarely cease to be over-the-top—billed as a horror-thriller, The Beta Test turns towards violence as its narrative becomes muddled with convoluted data breaches and sex-induced madness.
Jordan’s an angry person, engaged to be married, stressed at work, and looking for a release. That release comes in the form of a purple envelope inviting him to a hotel room for a no-strings-attached sexual encounter with a mystery person, to which he of course obliges. With both parties blindfolded, Jordan and his match have sex and he proceeds to become increasingly wary of the encounter. Other people start to be murdered around him, with their partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, and spouses killing them, leading to deaths all stemming from infidelity.
Thus Jordan tries to track down the maker of these envelopes and the person that is ruining his life—who turns out to be Johnny Paypal, an absurd name for an absurd hacker. Using classical music during multiple montages, Cummmings and McCabe direct to surprise, leaning on the silly insanity of their premise while attempting to critique Hollywood, dating, jealousy, and the fallibility of humans. They don’t succeed wholly but the outcome keeps one’s attention, possibly due to the overwhelming amount of ongoing death shown throughout the film as brutal and intense murders occur on a fairly regular basis.
Cummings’ performance leads a cast that’s committed to the bit, even when it’s just not working. Hammy acting sometimes loses its resonance, hitting a point of exasperation rather than hilarity. But Cummings keeps it together, leading us on a journey that’s less of self-discovery and more of self-survival for a character who has no intention to save others.
The horror stems from film’s end as one realizes the full extent of what’s happening, though the revelation comes later than it should. The writer-director combo of McCabe and Cummings finds some kernels of truth, though, about how our society values and strives for perfection in relationships and romance. We’re looking for “the one,” and doubt can easily seep in if we believe we’re with the wrong person. Relationships, as The Beta Test outwardly shows, are fragile, built on trust, belief, and love, the latter of which is lacking here.
The Beta Test might not be an empathetic or caring film, instead taking strides to show the cynicism and problematic nature of an industry and humanity’s willingness to jeopardize our happiness in small and constant decisions. It’s whip-smart in its showing of society as one, large swath of unknowing and searching conglomerate, unable to rest until we have all of the answers. It works as a comedic commentary, not as a thriller. It continues to show Cummings’ triple-threat ability, similar to other indie filmmakers with films at Tribeca (see: Hannah Marks).
If one can get past the exaggerated nature of The Beta Test, there’s much to glean from its mixture of laughs and critiques. Come for the mystery, stay for the study of society by two white guys playing absolute assholes. Even if that study reaches farther than it can grasp.
The Beta Test screened at the Tribeca Festival and will be released this fall.