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‘The Beta Test’ Review: Any excuse for Jim Cummings to vamp it up

Despite its undercooked social commentary, ‘The Beta Test’ is a blast because of its star.

Jim Cummings in 'The Beta Test'.
(Image: © IFC Films)

Our Verdict

'The Beta Test' is occasionally hilarious, but nowhere near as insightful as it thinks it is or wishes it were.

For

  • - Jim Cummings is vamping up a storm in a memorable lead performance
  • - A magnetic and occasionally hilarious character study

Against

  • - Jim Cummings is vamping up a storm in an overbearing lead performance
  • - The Silicon Valley satire feels either tacked on or underserved

The delightful — or annoying, depending on your point of view — thing about a Jim Cummings project is, for better or worse, you are coming to the Jim Cummings show to watch Jim Cummings get his Jim Cummings on. As tautological as that may sound, it’s a testament to the singularly manic force that Cummings brings to his screen presence. He is able to write and direct himself as instantly memorable characters that are just that little bit extra in films such as Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, awkwardly heightened but never so much that they feel unrealistic for their settings. 

Such is the case once more with The Beta Test, though this instance finds Cummings collaborating on writing and directing duties with PJ McCabe. Whatever McCabe’s contributions, however, this is still primarily a vehicle for Cummings to give a neurotic, unhinged lead performance, this time in a more notably coked up manner reminiscent of American Psycho.

Cummings stars as Jordan, a talent agent at a failing agency who grits his teeth in an over-whitened smile and casually lets potential clients know about his debilitating ulcer as he tries to sell them on IP packaging, whatever that made-up concept may actually mean. Jordan’s life changes, however, when he receives an embossed purple envelope in the mail, letting him know that he has been invited to a consequence-free sexual encounter with the woman of his dreams. Despite being engaged to the love of his life (Virginia Newcomb), Jordan accepts the offer and meets up with his mystery lover, blindfolded, in a hotel room. As the guilt eats away at him, he starts an investigation to uncover the origin of the letter, its purpose and its connection to a string of domestic murders around Los Angeles.

The Beta Test feels a lot like two discordant ideas for a film narrative unceremoniously smooshed together, so it’s somewhat unsurprising that the two halves don’t play terribly well with one another. 

The stronger half is the character study of Cummings’ lead, deconstructing the fast-talking talent agent as a comically image-obsessed liar with a fixation on sex and material wealth that are just out of his reach. Cummings’ performance is hilarious as he continually fails to schmooze his way through situations, often relying on pure threatening force and defeated resignation once his marks recognize that he has nothing to back up his bravado. However, he’s a sympathetic figure, since he buys into the lies of his flimsy industry and views wealth and fame as end-goals for happiness, even as his fiancée struggles to get him to turn off his hustle so they can have a genuine relationship and his best friend (played by McCabe) better manages a work-life balance to greater overall success.

The film falters, however, as it investigates the mechanics of the mysterious purple envelope. It never quite comes together as a coherent statement of the social phenomena it portrays, dipping its toes into a sort of Black Mirror scenario without tying that idea very well into how Jordan’s life falls apart. The purple envelope functions perfectly well as an inciting incident for Jordan’s voyage into the gaping maw of his own hollow existence, but the eventual exploration of online identity and data-scraping that accompanies it feels tacked on, like an idea that might have been better explored without a Jim Cummings performance sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

If it hasn’t been hammered home by now, your enjoyment of The Beta Test is almost entirely dependent on how you view Jim Cummings as a performative personality. His charisma is both the film’s greatest strength and biggest weakness, such an all-encompassing force that plot foibles are either forgivable for his entertainment value or made more grating for how he takes screen economy away from supporting elements. For my money, it’s a worthwhile time — occasionally hilarious, but nowhere near as insightful as it thinks it is or wishes it were. Sometimes a singular performance is all you need to hold a film up. And as with any Jim Cummings performance, you know exactly what you’re in for.

The Beta Test releases on VOD on Nov. 5.