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The Beta Test Review: Hectic Hollywood

With "The Wolf of Snow Hollow," one of my favorite films of 2020, writer/director Jim Cummings set in motion a delicate, deceptively accessible tonal dance, telling the story of a frustrated, impulsive, often difficult man who was honestly trying to do the right thing despite past mistakes and present missteps. That film, a horror-comedy about a local cop trying to pin down who (or what) is behind a series of murders in a mountain town, walks a very fine line between endearing and maddening, and it goes so all in on that very specific point of view that it doesn't just walk, but practically dances. It's such a tough thing to pull off that, despite the success of "Wolf of Snow Hollow," it was hard to imagine Cummings pulling it off to such a great extent a second time.

Then came "The Beta Test," and the realization that not only could Cummings pull off that same delicate dance of tone of character yet again, but he could actually go deeper. Co-written, co-directed, and co-starring Cummings and PJ McCabe, and set amid the constantly clashing and shifting egos of Hollywood talent agencies, this high-concept comedy is another delicate, beautifully executed exercise in threading a very fine needle. Propulsive, provocative, and blackly comic, "The Beta Test" is one of those films that makes you squirm in your seat as often as it makes you howl with laughter, with a voice and point of view that feels like it could only come from this particular filmmaking team.

A strange proposal

Jordan (Cummings) is a talent agent who feels on the cusp of his greatness. Alongside his determined partner PJ (McCabe), he's maneuvered his way toward a new deal that will put them both on the map, while at home he's preparing for a wedding to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), a beautiful woman who's totally invested in making the big day special. But Jordan's life isn't all big packing deals and romantic nights with his dream woman. He's a guy whose stomach is constantly in knots about the present and the future, and he finds apparent relief in a little purple envelope that arrives without fanfare or warning.

Inside the envelope is a simple invitation to what's billed as anonymous, completely consequence-free sexual encounter in a local hotel. Maddened by the almost-greatness of the life around him, Jordan takes the next step in the process initiated by this envelope, wondering if it's all too good to be true. Once he does, he finds himself caught in a strange web of deception, sex, and a mysterious figure who just might have the entire Hollywood landscape in his manipulative grip. But is it really as strange as it seems, or is it all in Jordan's head?

What's striking right away is just how well Cummings and McCabe's script sets up not just this scenario, but Jordan's reaction to it as he moves from release to suspicion to all-out descent into a writhing ball of nervous energy. Lots of films promise this kind of spiral, but few have ever rendered it quite as realistically or hilariously as "The Beta Test." That's thanks in part to the wider view the story takes of the title event itself, and the often horrific consequences that come with those little purple envelopes, but it's also thanks to a delicate emotional balance that, if you're not watching closely, could get lost in all the awkward, frenetic comedy pacing that unfolds over the course of the film.

A comedy of egos

There's no one secret to how well "The Beta Test" works. Every key element, from the level of commitment of the cast to Cummings and McCabe's direction to the precision of the tonal balance the storytelling strikes, lands its blow at exactly the right moment, but thinking back, I find that what hits me the hardest is how well the film sets up and knocks down Jordan's own ego over the course of the story. Other films might focus more on his sense of personal power, his feelings about his reputation or his professional victories, but while "The Beta Test" certainly has those concerns as well, the key to Jordan's unraveling here is his own personal sense that he's not like those other guys. In the course of carrying out its high-concept hook, the film becomes a story of a man who's very aware of the particular Hollywood machine he's caught up in, and is determined to not get sucked down into a particular stereotypical cesspool of toxic, power-hungry masculinity. Of course, Jordan's choices throughout the film throw this concern into very sharp relief, and the focus on what happens as he comes to grips with that forms the emotional backbone of the entire narrative.

That doesn't work unless Cummings is completely committed to inhabiting these various shades of his protagonist, and as anyone who saw "The Wolf of Snow Hollow" or its predecessor "Thunder Road" knows, we never had to worry about his ability to dive headfirst into this character. Without his performance, "The Beta Test" might still work as a story, but it probably wouldn't work nearly as well as a comedy. As it is, Cumming is willing to weaponize his clean-cut good looks and ability to convey nervous ferocity to deliver a performance that's simultaneously raucous and subtle, humorous and heavy, awkward and self-assured. Put McCabe's calmer, steadier work alongside him for contrast, and you've got one of the year's best comedic performances, a towering example of how to balance awkwardness, rage, confidence, and confusion into a raw portrayal of a man who can't stop getting in his own way.

"The Beta Test" will not be the easiest comedy you'll watch this year, but it will stand as one of 2021's most intriguing, and most entertaining, satirical looks at the ways in which sex, deception, and power twist people into strange new shapes. It's a film with a very specific, very effective power, and the spell it casts will linger in your head long after the credits roll.

"The Beta Test" is in theaters and on demand November 5.