Jim Cummings isn’t subtle in “The Beta Test.”
He mugs, he twitches. His expressions are broad. His banter hurtles, almost out of his mouth’s control. He hits his punchlines a little too hard.
But damn, he’s funny in it.
As a foul-mouthed, increasingly manic Hollywood talent agent, about-to-marry and yet tempted by this mysterious (printed) invitation to a blindfolded, anonymous “no strings attached” afternoon assignation at a swank Hollywood hotel, Cummings is in his element. And he should be. He co-wrote and co-directed it.
The deal is that once this sexual encounter has happened, Jordan needs to cover it up. He needs to know who did the inviting, who he was there with. And hunting for this information turns a wrapped-too-tight hustler into a breathless, sometimes hilarious paranoid.
Wait until he figures out that, as we’ve seen in the movie’s dark and shocking opening scene, that the significant others who learn about this betrayal by their wives/husbands/lovers have a habit of snapping and murdering them — with a knife, a gun, poison. Whatever works.
Cummings (“Thunder Road,””The Wolf of Snow Hollow”) and his co-writing/co-directing co-star PJ McCabe, play fast-talkers in a hyper-competitive agency in an era where clever agents might see the writing on the walls. They’re hyper, motor-mouthed dinosaurs in a collapsing house of cards. Maybe.
That’s why they talk so fast all the time. That’s why they’re at war with the WGA (Writer’s Guild, union). That’s why every agent we ever see depicted on screen — in movies, in “Entourage” — seems about to blow a fuse at any moment. That’s why we’re treated to montages of Jordan blurting “We’re so excited” to every potential client, about every possible “package” and every backend “streaming” deal.
But this purple envelope, this invitation, upended his world. He’s locking eyes with every beautiful woman he sees, dazed and embarrassed all the while. And that’s before he actually goes through with it. That’s before the follow-up uh, notes. That’s before he hears about the murders.
Whatever’s going on, Jordan and his colleague PJ — yes, he’s got the same initials as his character — think it must have something to do with their corrupt business, our corruptible times, “this climate,” post #MeToo, after “Harvey,” beyond social media, something to do with the algorithms in play with whatever the hell or whoever the hell is behind those damned purple envelope invitations.
“The Beta Test” is a wired, wound-up and instantly-hip/instantly-dated Hollywood riff on relationships — romantic, business and otherwise.
There’s overreach here, a Big Message that feels a little Western Union in a Grindr/Instagram age.
The technique — rapid fire patter of the “Ni Hao...the hell are you?” to a Chinese mogul (Wilky Lau) variety, 360 degree camera pans to illustrate Jordan’s increasingly unmoored state after wondering just what he’s gotten himself into, more and more frantic-antic encounters with people who might be that one-afternoon-stand — can be wearing. And the technique doesn’t whizzbang over the simple plot all this “story” is lathered onto.
But our invitation is to just go with it, go with Jordan as he plunges does that rabbit hole. Sure, as his increasingly leery fiance (Virginia Newcomb) notes, “It must be exhausting, pretending to be you.” Because it kind of is, as is “The Beta Test.”
Cummings? Whatever message they go for here, he and McCabe have polished off a pretty good/pretty exhausting 93 minute audition for that “Entourage” reboot.
Rating: unrated, violent, sexually explicit
Cast: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Wilky Lau
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:33