“I’m gonna pay for it,” says Jordan Hines after throwing a tantrum and shattering a pane of glass in his office. He’s talking about the bill for the damage, but he’s also predicting his future at large. Jordan is a guy who works in communication — namely as a rep in a Hollywood talent agency — but he lacks a lot of basic communication skills. His mouth moves faster than his thoughts (which seem to be racing nonetheless), and he’s a terrible listener. He’s prone to anger and bullying. He lies, either directly or by omission, and he’s unaware of the fact that every lie comes with a price. He is gonna pay for it indeed.
One day, Jordan receives a suspicious envelope in the mail inviting him to a secret sexual encounter. He accepts, and has the sort of mind-blowing sex that only seems to happen in movies.
Oh, and it’s worth noting that he’s set to be married in just a few days.
That’s the very basic shell of The Beta Test, a film that mixes workplace comedy, erotic thriller, and Hollywood satire to great effect. It’s the latest from Jim Cummings (Thunder Road, The Wolf of Snow Hollow), who also stars. This time around, Cummings shares writing and directing credit with PJ McCabe, who co-stars, and who I swear I saw in a Domino’s commercial this past weekend. I’m sure it was him, but I don’t remember if it was Domino’s. Def him though.
Cummings has made a reputation for himself as a DIY filmmaker doing his darnedest to uplift the indie movie scene. He’s not anti-Hollywood, just very pro-indie, and based on the material of The Beta Test, it’s clear he and McCabe are critical of a lot of what makes Tinseltown tick. Both of their characters are ego-driven men hungry for power that they’re willing to abuse if needed, but both are also very aware of what their profession looks like in a post-Weinstein world. Cummings’ Jordan references “Harvey” is at least two of his manic workplace rants, and is always cognizant of how dickheaded he looks when berating his interns. He’s not cognizant enough stop being abusive on the whole, but he’s under a lot of pressure. At least that’s what he’d probably tell himself.
Fans of Cummings’ previous work will be familiar with his style of comedy. His characters are typically fast-talking neurotics, and much of the humor comes from him ranting and raving in ways that are simply not socially acceptable (the excellent short film which was expanded into Thunder Road is essentially just one of these rants writ large). It’s always funny, and I find it remarkable how well his films are able to tie this singular behavior into the thematic structure. With The Beta Test, I’d say that said integration is not as smooth as it was in either of his previous films, but it is effective nonetheless (I have now seen this movie twice, and although my criticism stands, I found I was much softer on it upon second viewing – could that change in the future? Perhaps!). Whereas his regular blow-ups could be predicted in his first two films, they seem occasionally out of place here. When Jordan is cruel to his coworkers and spouse, it’s harsh in a way that his recent cavalcade of stressors fails to validate, even with his characterization in place. He’s supposed to be on edge, but at moments he feels unhinged.
Even so, it’s hard to fault the film for erring a little on the harsh side here, because it’s never not funny and it always speaks to theme. Watching as Jordan haphazardly applies his sales savvy in non-work situations is cringetastic. He’s all “there’s my guy” when greeting strangers who he wishes to schmooze. His refrain of “we’re all very excited about this” is corporate non-speak of the highest order, and he employs it pathologically and passively, almost as if he doesn’t realize the sounds his mouth is making. He’s just submitting himself to formula in order to get through any situation without properly engaging. “Engage me,” demands his spouse (Virginia Newcomb, excellent) wishing to have her needs acknowledged by her future husband.
I wish to avoid spoilers, because there’s a compelling mystery at the center of the tale, and a respectable body count to boot. I will say that the film really brings its theme of open communication home in a big way, while also commenting on the undeniable appetites we have as human beings. Said desires are often not communicated, typically for illogical reasons, and the suggestion here is that the needs of the human animal are best served by open discussion rather than secrets and posturing. I can get behind that!
It’s been interesting to watch Cummings grow as a filmmaker (a lot excellent imagery comes through here, and the score by Jeffrey Campbell Binner and Ben Lovett is one of the low-key best of the year), effectively having tackled three quite different genres. I look forward to seeing what he, McCabe, and their team do next. Is there another world into which a fast-talking, ego-driven dude can be inserted and mined for humor, pathos, and drama? I’d like to think so.
I’d also like to think that there’s cultural space for the return of the erotic thriller. Until then, I’ll just be watching Color of Night on repeat.
Directed by Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Written by Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe
Starring Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe, Virgina Newcomb (go watch The Death of Dick Long for more primo Newcomb)
Unrated, 93 minutes