IFC Films
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Writer: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Cast: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Wilky Lau, Olivia Applegate, Christian Hillborg
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/16/27
Opens: November 5, 2021

To understand this largely surreal movie—one which, by the way, has some of the most striking editing this year or any other—you need to know what a Hollywood talent agency does. Talent agencies are a cutthroat business with the kind of competition that defines what is best (or worst) about capitalism. Talent agents typically make $200,000 to $1,000,000 a year in the industry that seems made to encourage nervous breakdowns of its executives. The job of the talent agents is to get their A-list clients the best parts and in return they get a chunk of the money that the stars receive. The biggest four agencies represent 70% of the actors, directors, writers and musicians. Such a breakdown is largely what “The Beta Test” is all about, a film that features a stunning job by co-director, co-writer Jim Cummings in the starring role as Jordan.

As a writer-director, Jim Cummings’ “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” offered us a mountain retreat where dead bodies pop up and a man has to wonder whether werewolves exist at all. “The Beta Test” is a more mature, complex work that centers on Jordan, who has the look of a bland middle-class man that you may not associate with the kind of high-power job enjoyed by the more ruggedly handsome Jon Hamm of “Mad Men.” Nevertheless there is something about his style that can grip the movie audience as he exercises a role that glues us to the screen.

Jordan is engaged to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) who during their courtship may find good reason to get cold feet about marrying him. Full of anxieties he receives an offer in the mail that he cannot pass up. Engraved on top quality paper is an invitation for an anonymous sexual rendezvous. The recipient is even offered a checklist of preferred kinks with the principal one being that both he and the partner wear masks the entire time they are together in a room in the Millennial Hotel in L.A. What begins as a fantasy ends up as the real thing, transforming a man who already believes he is desirable both to women and to all who engage his services, now believing women are coming on to him.

He relies on PJ (co-director, co-writer PJ McCabe), his friend at the agency, admitting all, both doing what they can to get to the bottom of who sent the sexual invitation. But before the fireworks begin on the principal plot, Cummings and Newcomb open “The Beta Test” with a scene in a building near Jordan’s. A Swedish woman tells her husband of ten years that she is unhappy and wants out, resulting in her murder. We wait until the plot thickens to see how this fits into the story.

Thrown in is a meeting between Jordan and a Chinese client, the talent agent trying to sell the agency on giving China a solid package, to which the client replies that talent agencies like Jordan’s are a dying breed; that he does not want or need “packaging.” Mixed in as well is a take-off on Internet consumerism, featuring a guy living in a basement who runs through tens of thousands of names, selling information about how each of us spends money. Unlike “Thunder Road,” which features a police officer’s meltdown (not unlike Jordan’s) following a divorce and the death of his mother, “The Beta Test” demands our attention on a variety of surreal images and may require a second viewing. The film is wildly imaginative with a terrific performance by Jim Cummings—whose meltdown will remind viewers of a similar break he suffers as Officer Jim Arnaud in “Thunder Road.”

93 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *