The Beta Test (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): He had it coming, you know

“The Beta Test” is a vicious and morbid black comedy which often goes wild with its edgy sense of black humor to our horror, embarrassment, and amusement. Mainly revolving around one very unlikable Hollywood dude who surely deserves all those predicaments poured upon him, the movie sharply and cheerfully examines and dissects toxic masculinity to the extreme, and we are not so surprised when it later enters a surreal territory of paranoia and online conspiracy.

Everything begins from one mysterious purple letter sent to Jordan Hines (Jim Cummings), who is your average hot shot Hollywood agent and is also about to have a couple of big changes in his life. Along with his partner, he is soon going to get a considerable financial support for their agency thanks to some very rich Chinese businessman, and he is surely determined to get the final agreement from that Chinese dude – even when he feels quite humiliated for getting his certain body part groped by that Chinese dude.

In case of his personal life, Jordan and his fiancé are busy with preparing for their upcoming wedding which will be held a few weeks later, and that is where that mysterious purple letter intrudes. It promises him a secret sexual encounter with a total stranger with complete anonymity, and he soon finds himself tempted by this offer even though he knows well that cheating on his fiancé now is not a good thing to do at all.

Once he sends his response in the end, Jordan receives the instruction on what to do next. He goes alone to some nice hotel located somewhere in the middle of LA, and then he enters a certain marked room where some young woman is waiting for him while being blindfolded just like he is as instructed. Due to their blindfolded status, it takes some time for them reaching to each other, but then everything goes pretty well once they touch each other, and he comes to experience a sort of power trip as gladly letting himself swept by passion and excitement.

As promised to him in advance, everything ends fairly well with no string attached, but then Jordan soon comes to realize that he probably made a very big mistake. It seems that he is entangled with some insidious scheme involved with sex and blackmail, so he attempts to search for any clue which may lead him to the origin of that mysterious purple letter, but his situation only becomes all the more baffling and frustrating to his exasperation.

In addition, as already shown to us right from the opening scene, he is not the only one who got into this kind of trouble. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that the mood later becomes more ominous as Jordan comes to learn of the other cases and their eventual consequences. If he does not find any solution to his ongoing circumstance, he may also have to pay a heavy price just like others, and that drives him into more dread and paranoia.

Rather than showing any pity of sympathy to its hero, the screenplay by directors/writers Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe has lots of mean fun with its hero’s increasingly aggressive male attitude, and it surely makes a big point on how his toxic masculine behaviors annoys and hurts others who happen to be around him. At one point, Jordan cruelly intimidates one female employee working under him just because he is quite angry and pressured, and I was not so surprised to learn later that this and several other hurtful moments in the film are actually based on the directors’ interviews with a number of people who had similar experiences at their workplaces in real life. Although those deplorable Hollywood figures like Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin were finally exposed for their violence and cruelty during recent years, I guess there are still lots of monstrous people like them in Hollywood.

As Jordan becomes more unlikable along the story, we naturally come to observe him from the distance without much care, but Cummings’ intense comic performance grabs our attention via its raw manic energy. We often cringe and wince as observing more of what a jerk Jordan really is, but Cummings is often electrifying to watch thanks to his deft handling of comic lines and precise comic timing, and we become more interested in what will happen in the end even though we do still not care much about his character.

What is eventually revealed at the end of Jordan’s bumpy journey is rather anti-climactic compared to what has been built up to that point, but that part still has enough naughty fun for us. During one certain scene around the end of the story, Cummings throws us another big moment to watch, and we get a sort of comic catharsis as his character finally becomes a lot more honest to himself than before.

On the whole, “The Beta Test” is another distinctive work from Cummings, who previous gave us “Thunder Road” (2018) and “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” (2020). Although I did not like “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” enough mainly due to its jarring combination of different genre elements, it and “Thunder Road” showed that Cummings is an interesting filmmaker who knows one or two things about male anxiety and insecurity, and “The Beta Test” confirms that again to us. Yes, it may be a bit too edgy and feverish for some of you to enjoy, but I think you should give it a chance someday nonetheless.

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