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THE BETA TEST (2021) Review

Jordan-Luke McDonald reviews Jim Cummings’ upcoming feature The Beta Test and discusses a few interesting aspects of the film with the filmmaker himself.

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The Beta Test (Blue Finch Film)

Blue Finch Film Releasing presents The Beta Test in cinemas 15 October.

Synopsis

Shortly before his wedding, ruthless talent agent Jordan (Jim Cummings) receives a mysterious envelope offering no-strings-attached sex with a stranger in a hotel room. Initially amused, then intrigued, he becomes obsessed by the idea of a secret erotic adventure and impulsively accepts. But will he regret his choices when his meticulous, superficial world threatens to collapse under the weight of his burgeoning lies?

Review/Interview

Following on from the critically acclaimed Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Jim Cummings returns to write, direct and star in his third feature film, The Beta Test. When asked about where the original concept for the film came from, which narrative component actually was the sole starting point, and how it developed and changed over time, Cummings offered some rather interesting insight.

“The genesis of the idea was for the letter service. I get spam mail and weird DMs and I thought this could be an interesting service that could derail people’s lives. The creator of the standing English postbox was a guy named Anthony Trollope who designed it and then regretted it. Before his invention, if a woman wanted to send a letter, she would have to send it through either her husband or her father. This technology allowed women to send letters to anybody they wanted and he worried that it would ‘corrupt the English family’. What a sexist dummy.”

Straying from the formula of his previous films, wherein Cummings was the sole writer-director, here he is instead joined by fellow cast member PJ McCabe for writing and directing. Such a change is understandable, given that this piece is arguably Cummings’ most challenging to date in many senses – narratively, thematically, socially and in terms of production. It touches on a number of different social topics.

“I really enjoyed working with PJ on this one because he was so formative in the sculpting of the narrative and screenplay. I’ve always worked with the same team of producers who keep me in line on set, but having your best friend also take the risk of all of this research was really wonderful. At times we felt like Woodward and Bernstein and other times we felt like Trey Parker and Matt Stone,” Cummings remarks.

Unlike a number of recent movies in the genre, however, The Beta Test is a comedy with cause and has reason to exist. It is assuredly satirical in nature, questioning toxic masculinity and the historical wrongdoings of Hollywood, whilst also cleverly touching on issues of conscious and unconscious forms of identity, personality and temperament, and the performative nature of relationships, both personal and professional.

Its 93-minute runtime feels tight, enabling the film to feel well paced and offer a satisfying level of entertainment without overstaying its welcome, although as a result, certain subtexts and plot points can sometimes feel slightly unanswered, unnecessary or unjustified. Moments of ambiguity, intentional or otherwise, feel laced throughout the fabric of the script.

“We really played with the subtlety of the ending. We shot a whole lot of sequences that drove the other adultery in the film home, but it just felt too cheesy. We wanted to make something about temptation, something evergreen. I really also wanted to make something about the dangerous power dynamics of Hollywood and how independent filmmakers can circumvent the system to tell dope stories. We’ve been very lucky,” Cummings acknowledges.

Cummings offers an undeniably physically committed and wildly hysterical central turn that channels something akin to an inner Jim Carrey with his slapstick sensibility and a flamboyant extravagance that would not be out of place in the likes of Liar Liar or Bruce Almighty.

Yet the film more widely could just as easily draw comparisons to Kitty Green’s 2019 film The Assistant, which also challenged the dark sides and sexism of Hollywood, albeit via a superlatively subdued atmosphere and reserved lead performance. The Beta Test, on the other hand, is virtually the antithesis, although Virginia Newcomb brilliantly provides a grounded and heartfelt performance as Jordan’s wife Caroline that serves as an anchoring point for reality amidst the vast absurdity. Dubbed partially as a horror, the horror elements feel more like horrifying moments of defining shock value than anything constituting an overwhelmingly consistent tone. The film undoubtedly has its fair share of darkness, though.

The opening scene, for example, emphatically sets the gritty tone to come in spectacular fashion, before transitioning into a series of riveting, Vivaldi-riffing title credits that immediately grab your attention. The consistent use of a classical score contrasts to the dark comedic tone of the film, while simultaneously elevating the film, heightening the dramatic thrills and tension.

“I really love the pomp and circumstance of the classical music. We needed something big and scary and fun like the story and so we went for it. Lots of Vivaldi played as forté as possible. We had to make it elegant and appealing to classical Hollywood types so they’d see it as well,” Cummings notes.

Once the film latches onto your attention in those first moments, it will hold on to it tightly until the very final frame. This is no doubt in part due to Cummings’ aforementioned exaggerated, cartoonish, slapstick style, but also because its narrative is deceptively complex, setting up various social issues to strike down. In fact, maintaining the audience’s attention was very much Cummings’ intention.

“I promised myself after my first movie that I would never make another boring film. PJ and I are both longtime heavy Redditors, so we really like telling stories for that audience which happens to have a relatively short attention span, ourselves included. We wanted to give people a bang for their buck, make something potent for people and make them laugh and feel more powerful than the powers that be,” he states.

The film generally integrates its comedy, horror, thriller and mystery elements together well. In this vein, the dialogue may grate on some viewers, but its relentless and incessant nature bolsters that quirky yet unsettling mood. The unforgiving hysteria and frenetic energy conjure an aura that almost feels like an unending fever dream, absorbing the viewer into its bizarrity. The constant repetition of male characters uttering the words “I’m sorry” in a way that can only be described as insincere is certainly not accidental. The men never seem to learn.

The incredibly high level of performance is made all the more impressive when one considers that Cummings is at some level responsible for his own direction and dialogue. However, he explains how certain approaches to preparation and production made the whole process slightly easier.

“It was really easy with this one because my co-director PJ was on monitor at all times and we had rehearsed it for months leading up to the shoot days. We write it all out loud anyway, so so much of the film is directed months prior and we just finesse it when we’re all on set.”

The cinematography is visually engaging and interestingly feels quite experimental in places, which enhances the quirky tone of the film. Kenneth Wales communicates a lot about the characters and their mental states, as well as the wider social issues being addressed, through the visual language alone, from 360-shots encircling the protagonists in conversation to Dutch angles that have an ethereal feel as if they actually ought to represent the default framing.

“We really wanted the film’s look to be a love letter to David Fincher and Ruben Ostlund and Chinatown. Ken [Wales] is so talented and this is not going to be the last time that we work with him. We had longform meetings about the visual language of the film that culminated in big rehearsal sessions with Ken. To make a film this forensic and meticulous in the same way that Parasite was made takes a lot of conversation beforehand,” Cummings says.

When it comes to the visual composition of the film, Cummings too deserves further respect, as he was responsible for an editing job that really helps to establish and enact a genuine sense of frenetic energy. He demonstrates a deftness in cinematic awareness, knowing exactly when to utilise an unbroken long take versus opting for a rapidly edited sequence or montage. Meanwhile, some moments of pure comedic gold stem from effective smash cuts.

“There is a lot of craftsmanship that went into the edit on this one that we never could have predicted from the previsualisation podcast or screenplay. There are a few specific moments in the film where we cut away to inserts during an informational montage that was really discovered in the edit. Specifically, when PJ is talking about the Medici family and we cut to shots of Florence. Then, during the 360-shot in the bar room later, we re-created 360 shots of the Facebook campus and a few other helpful moments.”

On a final note, Cummings proffers his hopes and overall intentions for the film: “Honestly, the biggest takeaway that I hope audiences have is a feeling that their time wasn’t wasted (a feeling many of us have too often at the cinema), that the movie was well-crafted and that it was dope. It’s selfish and petty, but people have been digging it and that’s all we really wanted in the first place.”

The style of comedy and the overall tone and structure of the film might not appeal or work for everyone, but if nothing else, it is easy to respect and admire the technical quality of filmmaking, particularly the contributions of Cummings in multiple departments. Indeed, fans of his previous work are bound to appreciate and enjoy his latest outing.


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