In the late ’90s, when Jim Carrey did his pivot away from rubber-faced anarchy to became a serious actor, the detour didn’t last all that long, but he gave three stupendous performances (“The Truman Show,” “Man on the Moon,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), and one of the things that made them great is that Carrey, in those roles, seemed to be expressing more of himself than ever. He didn’t jettison his snappish, ironic, through-a-glass-snarkly comic vibe; rather, he showed you the anguish and romantic fervor on the other side of it. But imagine, for a moment, that you were watching a Jim Carrey who pushed his private obsessional qualities one step further over the edge — who was still, at times, quite funny, only now his motormouth personality was the sound of an ordinary man slowly and seriously coming apart.
Jim Cummings is that actor. In “The Beta Test,” he plays a Hollywood talent agent who’s like one of the smarmy deal-point players on “Entourage” taken to a whole new level of toxic competitive paranoia, and he’s arresting to watch. The reason the Jim Carrey comparison is so striking is that, first of all, Cummings resembles him (though with a touch of the young David Byrne’s spooky-eyed elegance), but also because there’s a Carryesque italicized force to his personality that wires the audience right into him. His hyper-intelligent gaze seems to take in everything in front of it, yet what he does with that knowledge is a bit more warped; he seizes onto it like a doggy bone. He’s fighting to retain his power in a world that wants to take it away.
“The Beta Test,” which Cummings co-wrote and co-directed, is a down-the-rabbit-hole, daily-life-as-Twilight-Zone digital-age erotic horror film about the sick soul of Los Angeles. It’s a kind of companion piece to the movie that put Cummings on the map and onto my radar: “Thunder Road,” the astounding 2018 indie drama that took the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW. There, too, Cummings played a man drenched in obsession, only he was a heartland loser — a mustached small-town cop teetering on the edge of divorce, screwing up at work, without realizing that his existence was slipping away from him. Cummings’ subject appears to be the spectacular meltdown of the male ego as it gets nudged out of the center of society, and in “The Beta Test” he plays an entitled alpha dick who gets the grand temptation he deserves.
His Jordan Hines is one of the star sharks at a legendary talent agency, and that means he’s imitating four decades’ worth of media images — the suits, the car of the moment (it’s now a Tesla), the volume level with which he’ll insult an underling in front of coworkers, the fake laugh that says, I have to be laughing along with you right now to not be revealed as the scum I am. He’s acting the way he’s been taught a corporate killer is supposed to act. He’s Jeremy Piven in “Entourage” meets Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street” meets…something far worse.
What makes the film a trenchant peek at where Hollywood is today is that it keys off the war between the WGA and the talent agencies to show us how the agencies have suffered an attrition of mystique. In the Michael Ovitz ’80s, the agent was the new god, and the mantra was packaging. In the “Entourage” 2000s, the agent was still a master of the universe, but the snakiness was starting to eat its own tail. Now, with the entertainment world increasingly splintered, the era of high packaging is fading, making the agents look more like cogs pretending to be more important than they are.
Pretending is what Jordan’s job is about. He’s pretending to be your friend, pretending to be a business assassin, pretending to net you the deal of a lifetime. But he’s past pretending that it all means anything. I’ve rarely seen an actor portray this kind of hotshot sociopath while showing you, as Cummings does, the torrents of anxiety that drive him. Jordan is about to be married, to the centered and adoring Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), and he would seem to have it all. (He’s pretending to be a sweet and caring fiancé too.)
But then an offer drops in from the heavens. In the mail, he receives a small purple envelope, and inside, in the embossed script of a wedding invitation, is a note requesting him to meet for an anonymous sexual rendezvous, along with a card offering a checklist of kinks. The temptation is overwhelming to him: not just the adulterous thrill of it, but the promise of sex liberated from identity. So he fills out the card and sends it in, and days later another purple envelope arrives, this one containing a meeting time and the key to a room at the Millennium Hotel.
He goes, and sees a purple silk blindfold on the door handle, sealing the scene’s minimalist note of “Eyes Wide Shut” mystery and dread. Then he enters the room, and to our surprise he has an experience that lives up to his dreams. There’s a montage of Jordan saying “It’s exciting” to his clients, and now we see what’s really exciting him.
But then it’s over, and that’s it (no more purple envelopes). And now that he has dipped into this forbidden oasis, it starts to take over his life. Everywhere he looks, women are coming on to him (but are they?). An assistant makes an outrageous, taunting reference to his secret meeting (but did she really?). Feeling as if he’s losing his bearings, Jordan confesses what happened to his only buddy, his agent partner PJ (winningly played by the film’s co-writer-director, PJ McCabe), and the two set out to investigate where, exactly, the envelope came from.
“The Beta Test” is a furtive satire of Hollywood corruption, a libidinous thriller about how the treacherous risks of adultery have been magnified by #MeToo and the age of digital tracking, and a nightmare of Internet consumerism run amok. The film’s elements don’t mesh as seamlessly as they should have. “Thunder Road,” which Cummings wrote and directed himself, was all of a piece. “The Beta Test,” like Cummings’ “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” (2020), is almost too ambitious, tucking a surfeit of ideas into its heightened surrealist mindscape. Yet the movie, at its best, can hold you in its grip. Cummings has won a cult following on social media, and that’s because, as both actor and filmmaker, he uses a DIY aesthetic to touch something about our time — the way the 21st century tears at the notion of identity. As an actor he can rivet you, because he grasps that even seemingly ordinary people are now actors, chattering and performing and signifying who they are, while who they actually are gets buried under the noise.