The Beta Test movie review & film summary (2021)

I’ll resist the urge to get too deep into the weeds of the plot, because there’s a lot of it, and it’s questionable whether it fits together neatly and illustrates the movie’s thematic concerns rather than setting up the next explosive scene between Jordan and whatever unfortunate soul he happens to be dealing with. The latter, I suspect, is the movie’s true reason for being: maybe the filmmakers created a substantive, often hilarious main character and then built a project around him. Jordan incarnates the spirit of early 20th century “video or it didn’t happen” disasters. He’s a walking social media shame cycle, complete with insincere apology.

But if you can maintain a tone, you can keep an audience’s attention, and Cummings and co-director/co-star PJ McCabe are more adept at maintaining tone than a lot of better-known filmmakers. Like Cummings’ previous feature, the horror comedy “The Wolf of Snow Hollow,” “The Beta Test” understands how to set up and pay off a joke by putting the camera in a particular spot and moving it to reveal or conceal a crucial detail. The movie is also adept at creating a cinematic version of the subjective voice in fiction, viewing Jordan in a detached, cool manner for long stretches, then shifting us inside his fevered brain long enough for him to misunderstand or mishear a statement by another character, which in turn triggers another panic attack, meltdown, or swan-dive into paranoia that is funny when we’re in Jordan’s head, and that becomes even funnier when we leave his consciousness and see him as others do.

Cummings has dark-and-slender, Billy Crudup-Jim Carrey leading man looks, and they intensify the self-lacerating nature of the character’s outbursts. That the joke is ultimately always on Jordan makes the character amusing rather than merely unpleasant. He verbally abuses subordinates, co-workers, lower-level functionaries at retail shops and in his own apartment building, his friends, and Caroline, often while pretending to have authority he doesn’t possess (sometimes he comes on like Tom Cruise’s “Eyes Wide Shut” character trying to gain access to inaccessible places by assuring the gatekeepers that it’s OK to let him through because he’s a doctor). Jordan’s disruptive snits are usually followed by (or interspersed with) half-assed apologies that sound as if Jordan is saying what he believes that society expects him to say, not what’s in his heart. 

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