Fantastic Fest 2021: Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe’s THE BETA TEST: You Must Spring This Thirst Trap

Jim Cummings’ unhinged hot streak continues brilliantly

One wonders just how long Hollywood outsider Jim Cummings can keep his hot streak running.

From Thunder Road, to The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, to The Beta Test, Cummings writes, directs, and portrays a lead character who is absolutely on the verge of collapse, is perhaps one of the most exhausting lead characters in history (yes, in all 3 movies), and yet who ultimately becomes profoundly, uncomfortably vulnerable and generates a unique kind of cinematic empathy. As exhausting and ruinous as Cummings’ characters are, we can’t help but identify with them in some uncomfortable way we’d most likely care not to admit. And if this were all there was to Jim Cummings’ schtick, then perhaps there would be every reason to believe that his hot streak will be coming to a halt before too long. But what Cummings has now abundantly proven in his latest two features is that he can bring his incredibly unique characterization of broken humanity and place it into any number of genres and simply knock those genres out of the park.

Thunder Road introduced Cummings to the world as a father and a cop who simply has a unique and extremely public sort of breakdown. Wolf Of Snow Hollow brings a similar kind of character into a horror/murder mystery tale and nails everything about the genre. The Beta Test introduces a new co-writer/co-director/co-star in PJ McCabe and goes down a mystery/erotic thriller path to absolutely singular results. It’s odd, but even with his first two films being some of my favorites of their respective years, I still had some doubts as to the staying power of Jim Cummings. But here with The Beta Test, I’m comfortable believing that Cummings and his collaborators are here to stay, with endless creative energy and imagination left in the tank and endless fire in their bellies to skewer our way of life and affirm our mutually broken humanity.

There’s a confidence of vision in McCabe and Cummings’ latest film which is so brazen it literally seals their fates in terms of their futures in Hollywood. Cummings has long been outspoken about the dysfunctionality of Hollywood and the studio system and has thus far created his films totally outside of the studio system utilizing crowdfunding and social media. But The Beta Test pours some lighter fluid on the Hollywood sign and sets it ablaze as Cummings and McCabe play best friends Jordan and PJ who are slimy Hollywood agents at a fictional talent management agency called APE. One might almost call their scathing commentary on the brokenness and moral bankruptcy of the machine behind talent management on the nose if it weren’t so absolutely brazen and thorough and ultimately refreshing, because no one else would ever have the guts to take aim and fire so directly at the system that produces the very motion pictures we all love so much. And yet, it seems clear that Cummings and McCabe are perfectly capable of creating some of the most exciting motion pictures of the last several years without Hollywood’s help, so as they forge their own path, their righteous indignation towards a system that has allowed constant grifting, abusive relationships, power imbalance, and repeated sexual abuse of women and minors, will serve as a gift and not a curse.

But let’s talk about The Beta Test and how absolutely enthralling it is as its own piece of work. Cummings’ Jordan reminds me of Jude Law’s character in The Nest in that they’re both grifting their bosses, clients, and families into believing they’re more successful and fabulously wealthy than they really are. Jordan tells everyone about his Tesla, how he’s five years sober, and how every deal is just one “talk” away from closing. He’s also 6 weeks out from his wedding to his longsuffering fiancee Caroline (Virginia Newcomb, who is great in both this and The Death Of Dick Long) and has just received an intriguing purple envelope in the mail inviting him to a “no strings attached” sexual encounter…

Because Jordan is profoundly insecure and an absolute fuck-up, he takes the bait, has a frankly very hot sexual encounter, and is then promptly caught up in an identity theft situation that sends his already fake life spiraling out of control. Importantly, however, it isn’t just that Jordan is a fuck-up. Rather, The Best Test shows us that countless others have also fallen for this purple envelope scheme. And the film reminds us, with plenty of context, that it isn’t just Hollywood that is broken, it’s our whole national ethos. The pressure to “fake it ‘till you make it” is so prevalent in America that there are hundreds of thousands of Jordan’s burning the candle at both ends and quietly spiraling out of control. This fact allows us to both be disgusted by Jordan and also to identify with his plight.

Central to The Beta Test, beyond the character study of a broken human being, is this exercise in genre. The film is an effortlessly engaging mystery that keeps the audience guessing even as the solution to the problem is glaringly obvious: Jordan just needs to be honest with himself and his loved ones. The Beta Test, and the identity thieves all around us, know that we humans are so prone to hiding our demons at all cost that we’ll burn our entire lives down before we’ll simply be vulnerable. Jordan isn’t a hero by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s only when he begins to share some of his plight with PJ that the mystery begins to come into focus. And the key to the whole thing will come down to whether or not Jordan can stop lying incessantly to Caroline. But I won’t reveal where that all goes as you must see this for yourself.

What’s important is that The Beta Test succeeds in every possible regard. You’ve got unique, thrilling, and belly-laugh-inducing performances from Cummings, McCabe, and Newcomb. You’ve got angry, personal, pointed critique leveled directly at the power players in Hollywood who allow their abuse-laden system to keep festering. And you’ve got a thrilling rabbit hole mystery that never ceases to shock and surprise. All of it is actually elevated and made singular by Cummings’ exhausting work as a phony whose vulnerability is laid so achingly bare that you can’t help but cringe at the humanity of it all. There are very few voices that are able to say what Jim Cummings is saying through his work, and his is a voice that demands to be heard.

And I’m Out.

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