When sitting down to watch Jim Cumming's ('Thunder Road') latest film 'The Beta Test', you'd be forgiven in thinking you've almost certainly sat down in the wrong theatre. 'The Beta Test' opens with what can only be described as a Swedish-foreign-domestic-horror-violence, where a woman calls the police to report an incident, and then it spirals into a bloody and brutal murder. Audiences will be immediately standing at attention, at first triple-checking they bought the right tickets, and then subsequently being completely transported within this film's walls. The quirky, satirical and sharp Cummings knows exactly how to create tone in his films, and this is no exception.
This opening scene is not nearly as out of place as it first seems, and as the film progresses, it becomes more and more clear why Cummings would open with such a shock to the system. Without explaining the plot too much, it's difficult to describe exactly how it fits into the wider world of the film - but trust the process.
So, would you commit a one-time, no strings attached, anonymous sexual encounter with an admirer? Cumming's character Jordan, a painfully accurate portrayal of a Hollywood agent, is soon to be married but is enveloped by this tasty proposition. He receives a beautifully crafted purple letter in the mail, and without getting into any spoilers, he proceeds to commit the act, and is faced with all kinds of repercussions.
Sure, he knows better than to go ahead with such an opportunity, but this toxic, synthetic and borderline caricature of a "man" goes against his better judgment, and what follows is a film that lays his sanity on a knife's edge. Cummings is fantastically magnetic and commanding on screen, as he constantly struggles with his identity in the aftermath of his infidelity. He is almost cartoonish with his facial reactions, but it doesn't ever distract or veer away from the tone he sets early on in the film. He is portraying a character who at one point admits that "everyone wants to be a Harvey," so that goes some way in explaining what kind of a resentful, egotistical maniac protagonist this film centres on - and it's clear that Cummings loves every second of it.
Sure, he knows better than to go ahead with such an opportunity, but this toxic, synthetic and borderline caricature of a "man" goes against his better judgment, and what follows is a film that lays his sanity on a knife's edge.
'The Beta Test' is a film funded by We Funder, essentially a crowd funding equity that allows anyone to finance the film. It's important to know this for two reasons. One, because this might be the future of indie filmmaking, and two, it's clear that Cummings and his partner PJ McCabe, were given complete creative control over the film - for better or for worse.
The independence and youthful energy are felt in the direction from Cummings and McCabe, filming in a mostly understated manner, but being distinctive and creative when it needs to be. There were some particularly impressive shots that are certainly worth noting, but it's the overall theme and tone and that will stay with the audience long after the film ends.
The film's conclusion is not quite open-ended, but hardly definitive either, and unfortunately, that highlights the problem I had with this film. It's really fun, distinct and engaging, but I don't think it's as clever as it thinks it is, nor does it necessarily communicate the message it's trying to project. Its commentary on toxic workplaces, Hollywood, identity, relationships, the internet and sex are all prevalent and given a chance to breathe, but none are really explored to a noteworthy depth.
I enjoyed 'The Beta Test' a lot, and will gladly give Jim Cummings the time of day. His comedic magnetism is a craft he continues to refine, and I greatly admire how he sets out to make his films. While 'The Beta Test' didn't necessarily hit all its marks, it's still an engrossing, sexy, satirical thriller that is well worth the ticket, even if at the beginning you thought you bought the wrong one. Stick with it, it'll be worth it.