By Alex McPherson
Watching a nervous breakdown unfold has rarely been as fun as it is in Jim Cummings’ and PJ McCabe’s “The Beta Test.”
Set within a smarmy world of Hollywood agents willing to manipulate and asskiss their way to wooing prospective clients, “The Beta Test” zeroes in on one distasteful chap named Jordan Hines (Cummings) willing to spend thousands of dollars to do just that. Despite having a well-paying job and a beautiful fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), Jordan can’t help but feel that he’s becoming obsolete. The macho, alpha dog persona he once embodied pre-Weinstein can’t exist anymore, changing power dynamics in his personal and professional bonds.
Meanwhile, Jordan’s company (A.P.E.) is on the defensive from the Writers’ Guild of America, who claim A.P.E.’s use of talent “packaging deals” rips off writers while connecting them with industry higher ups. Repeating the same fake pleasantries minute after minute, along with planning for his wedding, Jordan is eager for a release from the colossal burden of his daily existence — a chance to indulge his entitlement. Soon enough, he receives a fancy letter inviting him to a no-strings-attached, blindfolded sexual encounter at a lavish hotel. Jordan, despite his early attempts to ignore the temptation, soon gives in, and has the time of his life.
Afterwards, though, his actions start to gnaw at him: Who was the woman in the hotel room? Is he being blackmailed? Could Caroline have set him up? With his job and home life at stake, Jordan embarks on a farcical mission to uncover the truth — which holds far more paranoia and laugh-out-loud moments than viewers might expect. Plus, other people receiving the letters start turning up dead.
Indeed, Cummings’ and McCabe’s film is compulsively enjoyable, as we observe an abhorrent character get the reckoning he deserves, digging himself further and further into a Hell of his own making. Lampooning toxic masculinity, societal expectations of relationships, and the uncompromising access we permit online, sometimes unknowingly, “The Beta Test” excels in immersing viewers into Jordan’s crumbling headspace, all the while putting him in deliciously humorous situations that showcase just how truly pathetic he is.
Cummings — who previously directed the greenlit indie flicks “Thunder Road” and “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” — brings a finely calibrated chaotic energy to Jordan’s interactions. He tries to gain the upper hand through blatant lies, but more often than not winds up lashing out at those around him, brute-forcing his way to his goals. He’s extremely reluctant to appear vulnerable in front of anyone, including Caroline, only able to talk semi-honestly with his colleague, PJ (McCabe). In practically every scene, his pent up tension seems poised to explode at any point, but how long can he keep up the trickery and misdirection before it comes back to bite him? From posing as a detective to interrogating an innocent hotel clerk who refuses to take his frantic B.S., Jordan remains an aggravating presence from beginning to end, but a protagonist who’s so unlikable he’s almost endearing.
Similarly, the film’s editing, also done by Cummings, creates the sense that we can’t always trust what we see. A brief locking of eyes from across a room could spark Jordan’s suspicions, and the film lets us see the inner workings of his pervasive fixations. Absurd yet unsettling hallucinations, such as a Neanderthal-esque mating ritual, and dizzying montages ratchet up anxiety to a boiling point by the conclusion. Ben Lovett and Jeffrey Campbell Binner’s score expertly complements the heightening stress, while adding a touch of ironic melancholy at Jordan’s dying way of life, drenched in outdated workplace norms that, one hopes, will die off.
Side characters aren’t as well developed, but they add a welcome dose of groundedness to Jordan’s wild delusions. “The Beta Test” doesn’t spend much time at all with Caroline, probably by design, yet Newcomb’s acting effectively demonstrates her deep frustration at being constantly patronized and ignored. PJ, himself a successful agent who’s better able to pull off Jordan’s workplace schtick, is a loyal confidant, and his friendship with Jordan is easy to buy into. Jacqueline Doke gives a memorable turn as Jordan’s office assistant, Jaclyn, who is willing to maintain an illusion herself to advance her career.
The final reveals don’t pack as much of a cathartic punch as Jordan’s de-evolution, and some scenes of brutality aren’t necessary to get the story’s points across (particularly in a vicious opening that feels tonally separated from what follows). Still, “The Beta Test” is a scathing piece of work. My eyes were plastered to the screen, eager to see where the film would take me next. That “The Beta Test” is somehow able to remain comedically deft while tackling serious issues is undoubtedly impressive. So go ahead, I insist you give it a shot.
“The Beta Test” is a 2021 comedy directed by stars Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe. The film also stars Virginia Newcomb and Jacqueline Doke. It is not rated and runs 1 hour, 33 minutes. It opens in theaters and is available video on demand on Nov. 5. Alex’s Grade: B+
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.