The Movie Waffler New to Shudder - THE BETA TEST | The Movie Waffler

New to Shudder - THE BETA TEST

the beta test review
A Hollywood agent becomes paranoid after accepting an offer of adulterous sex.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe

Starring: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe, Virginia Newcomb, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Grace Applegate

the beta test poster

With Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, writer/director/leading man Jim Cummings established himself as one of the most exciting American indie auteurs to arrive on the scene in the last decade. His shtick is so distinctive (all his films are centred on men, played by himself, having some sort of breakdown as they attempt to negotiate the stress of their careers and other inconveniences) that it's a surprise to see him share writing and directing duties (with PJ McCabe) on his third film, The Beta Test.

Who knows what contributions McCabe made, but this is very much another Cummings joint. This time the stressed out anti-hero played by Cummings is Hollywood talent agent Jordan. Sober for five years, Jordan seems to have replaced alcohol with adrenalin, living his life at 100mph as he attempts to land clients in an uncertain climate where his role is becoming less vital every day.

the beta test review

One morning Jordan receives a purple envelope in the mail. Inside is an offer to meet a woman in a hotel room for anonymous, no strings sex. Assuming it's a scam, Jordan tosses the envelope in the trash, but he can't shake the idea out of his head and decides to accept the invite. All goes as promised, with Jordan finding a mask hanging on the door of the arranged hotel room. Donning the mask, he enters the room, where he finds a similarly masked woman. Nature takes its course and Jordan leaves the hotel satisfied.

In the days following however, Jordan becomes consumed with the feeling that he's been played. I mean, life doesn't just throw such gifts in your lap does it? Is he about to be blackmailed? Will his fiancée (Virgina Newcomb) be told of his indiscretion, mere weeks before their wedding date? Was the masked mystery woman someone he knows?

Desperate for answers, Jordan conducts a haphazard investigation to get to the bottom of who is responsible. The movie then adopts the structure of a classic detective thriller, but Jordan is no Sam Spade. Trying to use the manufactured charm of his industry, Jordan finds himself constantly running into dead ends as those who might be able to provide answers refuse to indulge him. But with each failed attempt to schmooze his way into someone's good nature, he learns a lesson, adapts his approach and begins to slowly collect pieces of this maddening jigsaw.

the beta test review

Jordan is something of a wannabe Patrick Bateman who can't quite bring himself to become a full-on sociopath. Every time he and his fellow agent best friend PJ (McCabe) insult someone they find themselves immediately apologising for their behaviour. Jordan's fiancée Caroline  coldly points out that she doesn't really know the real man she's about to marry as he's constantly putting on different faces, adapting like a chameleon to whatever social scenario he happens to be facing. As Christian Bale's Bateman said of himself, "I simply don’t exist." In one of the film's more cutting lines, Jordan voices his objection to a bout of what he perceives as insults from Caroline, who coldly responds "I'm not insulting you, I'm just describing you."

The cringe comedy of Cummings' films can be traced back to the likes of Fawlty Towers. With The Beta Test, Cummings establishes himself as the heir to John Cleese's throne as the king of cringe comedy. Like Cleese he exploits his physicality and nervous, almost scary energy for comic purposes. There's little in recent American cinema as riveting as watching a signature Cummings protagonist launch into one of his now trademark rants as they finally flip out like Basil Fawlty at the end of an episode. Cummings delivers one here in a car park that would be the stuff of Oscar nominations if Academy voters were bothered to, you know, actually watch movies.

the beta test review

Cummings is a very handsome man, but it's an uncertain sort of handsome. He's as chiselled and square-jawed as Jon Hamm but you could never picture him playing the sort of confident in their masculinity male figures Hamm is known for. There's a fragility to his handsomeness and the characters he plays either don't realise they're handsome or in Jordan's case fear that their looks are about to disappear ("My teeth are a mess," he claims, despite having an enviably beaming white smile). A Cummings protagonist is that really good looking bloke you know who is nonetheless terrible with women. Jordan catches the eye of several women throughout, only to blow it by behaving like a serial killer in their presence. Every time he begins speaking to a woman you find yourself shrinking in your chair as you can see where he's taking the conversation. The film makes several references to how things were easier for men like Jordan in the old days, before "Harvey" ruined it for them. You get the impression that having once been able to exploit women for sex, Jordan now finds himself floundering with no idea of how to get a woman into his bed through conventional means.

The Beta Test doesn't always work, with the storytelling a little too chaotic and unfocussed at times. But you don’t really watch a Jim Cummings movie for its story. You watch it for his unique screen presence, which keeps you gripped throughout, hanging on his characters' every word. There are movie stars and there are great actors. Cummings is one of those rarities, a great actor who also ticks every box that defines a movie star. How is Hollywood not at his feet?

The Beta Test
 is on Shudder UK now.