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EIFF 2021: ‘The Beta Test’ review

A dark comedic satire about sex and Hollywood in the digital age

Credit: IFC Films

‘The Beta Test’ is the latest film from indie auteur and #FilmTwitter icon Jim Cummings. Co-written and co-directed with PJ McCabe, the film is a paranoid comedic thriller, tapping into the crippling fears and anxieties of modern life, and how the digital age is consuming us from the inside. If ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Black Mirror’ had a bastard love child, ‘The Beta Test’ would be the ungodly result. 

Cummings stars as Hollywood agent Jordan Hines. He’s a major player at one of the big firms, and is trying to close a huge packaging deal. There’s a manic, sociopathic energy that Cummings brings to Hines, landing somewhere in the venn diagram of Jim Carrey in ‘Liar Liar’ and Christian Bale in ‘American Psycho’. He is constantly putting on an act in order to ingratiate himself to others. It’s all fake laughs and rehearsed dialogue. Cummings and McCabe have a lot to say in this film about the economic forces currently driving Hollywood, and none of it is complimentary.

Away from the Tinseltown satire, the film invites us into Jordan’s personal life. He is engaged to be married to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) and his life looks perfect from the outside. Then he receives a small purple envelope in the mail, which looks almost like a wedding invitation. Instead, it is an invite to a completely anonymous, no-strings-attached hook up, complete with an RSVP card for ticking off your sexual preferences. He initially just tosses it in the bin, but the thought of it starts to gnaw away at him. He digs it out of the trash, and sends the RSVP. Soon he receives another purple envelope with a hotel room key.

Credit: IFC Films

It’s no spoiler to say that he goes through with the encounter, and whilst it gives him everything he wanted, he quickly finds himself drawn into an increasingly murky landscape of deceit, data mining, and murder. That life of his—which he has worked so hard to appear perfect—begins to unravel spectacularly, allowing Cummings to let loose with his sensationally unhinged performance.

‘The Beta Test’ is a film that is constantly hoodwinking you. After a jaw-dropping opening scene with very strong horror movie vibes, it then switches to an ‘Entourage’ style Hollywood satire. It’s then briefly an erotic thriller, before morphing once again into a detective movie. By the time the film finally shows its hand, it has become something else altogether.

Does the film bite off more than it can chew? Almost certainly. But it’s that ambition, allied to Cummings’ raw nerve of a performance, and the overall off-kilter rhythm of the film that make it so compelling. Where else are you going to find a film that has something to say about the ongoing feud between talent agents and the WGA, the post-Harvey Hollywood landscape, the fractured nature of identity, how your social media persona is being interpreted and exploited, as well as providing a wry commentary on infidelity and sexual desire in the digital age? 

‘The Beta Test’ is a fearless piece of filmmaking from Cummings and McCabe. Darkly comedic throughout, and pulsing with energy, style, and fever-pitched anxiety. I guarantee after watching this film, the next time you are scrolling Instagram and that sexy celeb you follow posts a hot pic, you’ll think twice before double tapping.

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