Review by David Baldwin
A hot shot young Hollywood agent named Jordan (Jim Cummings) is in the middle of planning his wedding to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) when he receives an anonymous letter in the mail. He opens the letter and discovers an invitation to a hotel for a sexual encounter. He disregards it immediately, but comes back to it and ends up going through with it. Racked with guilt and curiosity, Jordan begins looking into the why and how he was targeted — and quickly becomes ensnared in something so much bigger than he ever could have imagined.
The Beta Test is chaos incarnate. I turned it on late at night with no intention of finishing it, and ended up staring bleary eyed through the credits, clutching a pillow in sheer fright and exhaustion. Cummings and his multi-hyphenated partner PJ McCabe have created the kind of movie that lulls you in with its mellow opening (well, if a murder is your idea of mellow). And just as you start to get a handle on where this story might be going, they pull the carpet right out from under you and allow the film dissolve into pure anarchy. I kept thinking of Uncut Gems and Shiva Baby while watching; not because these films are anything alike, but because they never slow down for you to catch your breath and get your bearings. They just keep moving relentlessly towards the finale, and you are either along for the ride or checking out as soon as possible. Rather than a full-on thriller, The Beta Test is more an amalgamation of genres that pivot and fit in together nicely. It also has some of the most wickedly vicious satire of this or any other year. Some of it is the kind of “Inside Hollywood Baseball” that will appeal to industry types and anyone who follows Twitter and Deadline on the reg. Others, including multiple references to “Harvey”, will be easy for all viewers to understand. I was laughing and cringing throughout, never once questioning why this film was decidedly not being released by a major studio.
While Newcomb and McCabe are great in their roles, the film belongs to Cummings. He is positively magnetic, commanding the screen with a mix of precision, charm and genuine paranoia. He is both funny and frightening to watch, gradually playing into the film’s tension and its deeper themes and ideas. He is not quite a hero, but you are never sure if you should be cheering for him or not, and those feelings only get more complicated as you continue travelling with him down the rabbit hole of what he and McCabe have cooked up here. As good as his performance is, I feel like he could have been developed a bit further and spent more time on what makes him tick. He has a compelling presence nonetheless, it just would have been that much more riveting had we been given a bit more to go on (the same goes for the enigmatic ending that should say more than it does).
I was incredibly excited to watch The Beta Test after a months long wait, and I was not disappointed. It is a wild ride from start to finish, anchored by an extraordinary performance from Cummings. Not everyone will be on board for the satirical madness that ensues, but those who are will be in for a treat. And after seeing Cummings eviscerate the screen here, I think I may need to move up Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow to the top of my watchlist queue immediately. If he is even half as good in those two as he is here, then we just might be watching the birth and evolution of our next great actor in real time.
The Beta Test is available on VOD and Digital now.