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'The Beta Test' review: Sexual mystery wrapped up in Hollywood satire

Writer, director and star Jim Cummings gives an unhinged performance in comedic thriller that unfolds against a backdrop of modern Hollywood.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Jim Cummings gives a gloriously unglued performance in "The Beta Test," a satirical comic-thriller which he also co-wrote and co-directed with actor PJ McCabe. He plays a Hollywood agent who is crumbling on the inside and struggling to keep it together on the outside, resulting in scene after scene of hilariously escalating meltdowns. 

Jim Cummings in "The Beta Test."

Cummings is a DIY indie film darling who made waves on the independent circuit with his 2018 film "Thunder Road," which acted as a marvelous showcase for his vulnerability and sincerity as an actor. He takes those traits and twists them in "The Beta Test," playing an unlikable egomaniac, but dialing in with the same level of commitment that made "Thunder Road" a breakthrough.  

Cummings is Jordan Hines, whose validation comes from his job at an L.A. talent agency. He walks with swagger and confidence but he's an insecure, jealous, petty mess, a climber always looking for the next rung and worried it will be taken from him. 

He's engaged to be married in less than two months (Virginia Newcomb plays his fiancé) but he doesn't let that stop him from answering a letter he receives calling for an anonymous sexual encounter with an unnamed admirer. He meets with the mystery woman in a hotel room, they never remove their masks, and after enjoying one another's company they both go their separate ways. But he's torn apart by, well, not guilt, but questions: who was she? Who sent the letter? And who knows about their rendezvous? 

Jordan needs answers and he goes on a quest to find them, bumbling his way through pseudo-interrogations he can barely fake his way through. (McCabe plays his pal, who tries to help him, to little avail.) Around him, "The Beta Test" paints a bleak picture of Hollywood bluster and confusion in a post Harvey Weinstein world where the old rules are being rewritten and no one is quite sure how to act.

There's another backdrop of murders that is woefully underexplored, but "The Beta Test" hits its target in Cummings' performance, which is manic and on the brink of full hysteria. Cummings is a voice all his own, and in "The Beta Test" he makes sure that voice is heard.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Beta Test'

GRADE: B

Not rated: Language, sexuality, nudity, violence, adult situations

Running time: 93 minutes

On Demand