By Naomi Roper
Jordan (Jim Cummings) is a Hollywood agent who along with his fellow agent PJ (PJ McCabe) spends his life trying to sign people who don’t want to be signed and discouraging those he has signed from agreeing to union deals. He has a stomach ulcer that’s making his life miserable, a filthy temper he takes out on his poor assistant and a fiancee Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) that he seems terrified to marry. In the run-up to his wedding, Jordan is unable to take his eyes off every woman he meets and so when he receives a mysterious purple invitation in the post inviting him to an anonymous sexual encounter with a woman he can’t resist. After the deed is done he becomes obsessed with finding out who is behind the scheme even if it means his own life falling apart…
Written and directed by Jim Cummings (The Wolf of Snow Hollow) and PJ McCabe (The Block Island Sound) The Beta Test is a lacerating look at Hollywood and the fragility of the male ego. Jim Cummings has emerged as a huge figure in independent filmmaking following Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow and The Beta Test is another of his films featuring an unlikeable, unstable male central character and a brutally realistic look at relationships (in The Wolf of Snow Hollow the focus was on the father/son relationship and in The Beta Test it’s all about the relationship between Jordan and Caroline and how honest (or not) two people in love truly are about each other.
The plot doesn’t necessarily stand up to a lot of scrutiny. The cold open is a mini slasher movie that doesn’t really fit with the tone of the rest of the piece and watching awful Hollywood agents be horrendous to their underlings is no fun at all. PJ McCabe is very entertaining as Jordan’s truly awful friend and colleague and Virginia Newcomb is wonderful at making us believe that her character truly loves Jordan despite his many, many flaws. Through her eyes we soften towards him. It’s a really lovely understated performance.
And in the centre of this chaotic maelstrom is Jim Cummings. Cummings is an extraordinarily gifted performer, utterly magnetic even as his characters repulse you with their weakness. He’s been compared to Jim Carrey but increasingly that sounds like faint praise. Jim Carrey at his peak was never as energetically weird and engaging as Jim Cummings is. He plays Jordan as Patrick Bateman with an anxiety disorder. He’s all pearly white teeth, fake sentiment “Hey there’s my guy”, boundless enthusiasm and pure coiled rage. Jordan hates his life and my god he hates himself. He’s trapped in a job he hates with people who don’t respect him. Watching him play private detective to mixed results is hilarious. Jordan is the exception to the rule that if you carry yourself with authority no one will question you. His attempt to wheedle the security footage of the envelope being delivered to his apartment building is absolutely hilarious with his bluster just being met by blank stares causing him to double down on his threats to the point of absurdity. Jordan’s final breakdown in front of Caroline in a parking garage is an astonishing tour de force. Cummings barely seems to draw breath as he lays out Jordan’s pain in one long manic tortured monologue. It’s as horrific as it is mesmeric.
The Beta Test may falter a little with its master plot but the strength of Cummings’ extraordinary performance means this is more than worth a watch. Hollywood stop sleeping on Jim Cummings – it’s time he became the star he deserves to be.
The Beta Test had its UK premiere at Grimmfest.