Jim Cummings tends to play men who refuse to lose control. His characters feel similar, but then so do many white, cisgender, heterosexual, elder millennial men—unable to wield power over their domain, they flail belligerently through these, their End Times. They find closure in slapping around a corpse (Thunder Road), or they turn to folklore and cryptozoology to explain a world they no longer understand at all (The Wolf of Snow Hollow). Everything is terrifying, everyone is watching, and the least noble thing any of them can do as the teeth rot from their mouths is rage against a universe that no longer wants them. So that’s what they do.
In The Beta Test, his first feature with co-director/-writer PJ McCabe, Cummings is Jordan Hines, a Hollywood agent facing extinction. As talent agencies battle the Writers Guild of America over “packaging deals” and his whole career’s culture shifts out from under him, Jordan receives a handsome purple invitation in the mail promising a “no-strings attached sexual encounter with an admirer at The Royal Hotel.” His marriage to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) looms—as do all things in the white millennial man’s life—and, as he’s fit and attractive and not uncommonly met by temptation in public, he can’t help but fantasize about whatever validation the purple letter offers. Are his fantasies even “OK” anymore? Why does no one seem to care when Raymond (Wilky Lau), a potential big international client, aggressively grabs Jordan’s crotch at a party? A white millennial man cornered by obsolescence—or worse, an obsolescence no one gives much of a shit about—will scratch and whine for scraps of satisfaction. Just any iota that someone gives about what he wants—that he matters.
So Jordan responds to the letter, filling out a checklist of his sexual preferences (“face-sitting” gets a double checkmark and a circle for emphasis), and soon receives a key card to a room at the hotel. Changing into sweatpants and sneakers but still in dress shirt and tie, the outfit of a paranoid man who will entertain the thought that forensic evidence of his misdeeds will most likely reside in the lower half of the body, he reluctantly enters the room and seems to get everything he’s bargained for (e.g., lots of face-sitting). But since he and, he assumes, his partner were blindfolded, he leaves spent and glowing but with no real idea who just rode his pretty face for a substantial amount of time.
His nervousness over getting caught, combined with his desire to find the identity of the woman from The Royal, gradually unravels him. He begins hearing things, hallucinating, grows increasingly unstable and obnoxious as Caroline struggles to plan a wedding around his existential crises. He finally confesses to his best friend and business partner PJ (McCabe, a concerned balance to Cummings’ energy) that he went through with the secret dalliance: “The woman, I can’t even tell you…You know that thing where something is different inside of the universe, in the multiverse system, and this is the one thing that’s different? It felt like that. I dunno, it’s hard to explain.” Likewise, fissures appear in the surface of reality: Jordan awakes from a nightmare to a dinner plate halfway through settling upside down on the ground; literal red alarms go off at the beginning of a big but awkward business meeting; clothes fall onto his leased Tesla (that he pretends he owns) from the window(?) of an apartment complex, and he never seems to catch a glimpse of the culprit; a woman in the background of a shot smashes a car with a baseball bat. Also there’s a rash of murders throughout L.A. of people connected to the purple letters. Everything is terrifying and everyone is watching.
As an excoriation of masculinity, there isn’t much to The Beta Test that Cummings hasn’t explored before, and the long takes and bravura monologues that initially defined his voice as a filmmaker appear here, though more sublimated into the fabric of the film than in any previous feature. And his handle on genre remains deft but slippery. In a recent episode of Joe Dante and Josh Olson’s The Movies That Made Me, Cummings spoke of his passion for movies that start as one thing and unexpectedly become something very different. The Beta Test is an erotic thriller as devotedly as it’s a satire and an upsetting glimpse of a very specific dying breed of tinseltown phony. As Cummings told Jordan Cronk in an interview for Mubi’s Notebook, “It’s a comedy. It is kind of like South Park in that way: if you can’t take a joke then you’re not cool. So many people find it funny and true to form. And it’s so well researched that I don’t know how much you can deny it.”
In the same interview, Cummings discusses The Beta Test’s unique distribution model, how he and McCabe have retained serious ownership over the film in a world built to bend filmmakers and creators to the whims of an uninterested few. It’s impressive how they’ve been able to function and adapt in this desperate streaming age, while their success is clearly the result of hard work and pathological self-preservation. Maybe ironically, The Beta Test seems to come to a similar conclusion: This world is out to get you. You must do what you can to protect everything you hold dear against the tide of apocalypse.
Which is much funnier than it sounds. With cinematographer Kenneth Wales, Cummings and McCabe create an anxious pace to Jordan’s ceaselessly confrontational spree through Los Angeles, otherwise concisely introducing a largely esoteric corner of our culture-consuming quotidian. Against a lean genre construction, Cummings sputters and apologizes and screams at people and breaks things—vaping constantly—less a force of nature than a flesh-and-blood body half-failing to contain the whiny forces of nature within. His performance is a miracle of control and timing, focused by how little control Jordan has in his life, how poorly timed everything seems to be. We’re often given license with Jordan’s thoughts and daydreams—repeated asskissing parlance going ad nauseam through his head, mating rituals imagined as brutish viral videos—and when we’re not, Cummings’ face contains multitudes. Interstitial shots of Jordan working out while working through dilemmas in his head read like master classes in conveying the moral quandaries and hilarious microgestures of a desperately horny man. Who among us have not respectfully looked while processing what we’re looking at through every empathy filter in our already taxed brains?
Because everyone is watching and everything is terrifying. The Beta Test never attempts to refute how lame Jordan is, how ineffectually he inhabits this plane of existence, how much of a baby he is, how unhelpful he will be as the planet devolves into the kind of chaos where violence and oblivion just occur in the background. The film just celebrates Jordan’s delusions as exactly what they are: the only way to cope with a universe that no longer wants people like him around anymore.
Directors: Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe
Writers: Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe
Starring: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Olivia Grace Applegate, Wilky Lau, Kevin Changaris, Jacqueline Doke
Release Date: November 5, 2021
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.