It’s the latest from that most independent of independent film makers, Jim Cummings. After his portrait of a meltdown in Thunder Road and affectionate werewolf pastiche, The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, he turns his attention to Hollywood itself in a film that bears some of his hallmarks and takes him into new territory.
As well as directing and writing, this time in collaboration with P J McCabe who also stars alongside him, he also stars as the hyperactive Hollywood agent at the centre of The Beta Test. Constantly on the look-out for new writing talent to represent, he’s also six weeks away from his wedding to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb). Stress is the name of the game, but it’s all taken to another level when he receives an invitation in a distinctive purple envelope to an anonymous, no-strings-attached sexual encounter in a top hotel. The temptation is too strong, and the experience sends him down a rabbit hole of deceit, guilt and digital data.
While it’s another venture into the darker side of human nature – Cummings’ favourite stomping ground – this is a film with a specific target. Hollywood. Specifically the system which allowed agents to claim hefty fees through what they call “packaging deals”. They’re explained in the film as “large payments that we get when a TV show or movie is greenlit for us having arranged the creative team behind the project.” It was at the core of a long-running dispute between the Writers’ Guild of America and Hollywood’s top agents, during which the Guild instructed its members to fire their agents. The outcome was a win for the WGA at the start of this year, with agencies returning to a more conventional commission basis, but the acrimony it created is taking time to die down. So sensitive was the subject that, when The Beta Test had its debut at February’s Berlinale, it wasn’t shown to the press and Cummings was extremely guarded about it in the few interviews he gave at the time. But the shackles are off now, with its UK premiere at this year’s EIFF and a cinema release scheduled for October.
It’s not a flattering portrait of agents: despised, artificial and described as “a dying social network”, they operate in much the same way as the anonymous figure behind Jordan’s invitation. They bring people together, demand huge amounts of money and are, ultimately, destructive. He’s not the only one to receive a purple envelope: thousands of them are circulating and they’re causing more than just grief for anybody who takes the risk. There’s the small matter of murder. But what sounds like a film which only Hollywood insiders will understand has a broader appeal and also an uncanny – and uncomfortable – ability to hold you in a vice like grip as the panic escalates and Jordan sees his apparently luxurious life crumble around him.
The difference between his disintegration and that of the cop in Thunder Road is that there’s little or nothing to like about Jordan. A self-obsessed bully unable to tell the difference between a close relationship and a professional one, his downfall has our attention but never our sympathy, which is exactly what Cummings is aiming for. In playing the role, his usual flair for humour coupled with desperation remains intact, but he’s added another layer of something decidedly unpleasant. As a satire on the industry, it comes with sharp teeth, even if the narrative is sometimes a little shaky, but more importantly it takes Cummings down a previously undiscovered road and shows that he’s more than capable of taking it on, both as director and actor. Fans of his work won’t be disappointed. Newbies will have the thrill that goes with discovering something special.
Thriller, Satire | Cert: 15 | Edinburgh Film Festival, 20 and 21 August 2021 | Blue Finch Film Releasing |Dir. Jim Cummings | Jim Cummings, P J McCabe, Virginia Newcomb.