No yes man or petty tyrant is safe in the Hollywood satire The Beta Test
Towards the end of Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe’s showbiz satire The Beta Test, perpetually harried Hollywood agent Jordan (Cummings) laments that Hollywood has become “a place I don’t have any control over.” Amid a larger, self-pitying rant about the post-#MeToo entertainment industry, that line stands out. Because when a man says, “You can’t talk to women anymore” without being accused of sexual harassment, or complains about how “cancel culture” is stifling his creativity, what he really means is that he’s accustomed to seeing the the world, and everyone in it, as territory to be conquered.
In order to knock these guys down a peg, co-writer, co-director, and star Cummings turns to a character familiar from his films Thunder Road and The Wolf Of Snow Hollow: a clammy doofus whose bone-deep investment in maintaining the facade of masculinity sets his life on a chaotic downward trajectory. Jordan is the limousine-liberal version of same, an agent at a fictional talent firm whose only discernible talent is the ability to take an insult and keep on smiling. He’s all flop sweat and surfaces, cycling through a handful of fast-talking catchphrases in a transparent attempt to appear friendly and relatable to his friends, clients, and employees. Even his fiancé, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), doesn’t know the real Jordan, if a “real” Jordan actually exists. If he was just a tad more sadistic, he’d probably be a serial killer.
He’s not, but he’s close enough that the effect of watching Jordan’s feature-length attempt to avoid accountability suggests casting Patrick Bateman as the hero of a detective series. That, of course, brings to mind Michael C. Hall and Dexter, and indeed if The Beta Test is pastiche, it’s of a quippy, cutting style of thriller popular around the turn of the millennium—Mary Harron’s film version of American Psycho included. Compared to the transgressions of those stories, however, Jordan’s are relatively tame: At the beginning of the film, he receives a mysterious purple envelope offering an anonymous, consensual sexual experience of his choosing with a “secret admirer.” Being a Jim Cummings character, he can’t help but respond.
Everything goes as planned, but the inconclusive note on which Jordan exits the encounter leaves him paralyzed with fear—not because he feels guilty about cheating on Caroline, but because he worries about the professional implications if his indiscretion was made public. This is a “post-Harvey” world, after all. And Jordan would be the first to tell you, with a wide alligator smile, that that type of behavior just doesn’t fly anymore.
The Beta Test sees straight through men like Jordan, lampooning them with ruthless glee. References to contemporary entertainment-industry issues, like the Sony hacks and the bitter battle between the WGA and agencies over so-called “packaging fees,” abound. (In case you’re not sure where Cummings and McCabe stand, both men add “WGA” to their credits at the end of the film.) But this is not some heavy-handed Adam McKay explainer, thank god. Beyond a few lines from McCabe—who co-stars as Jordan’s work buddy PJ—The Beta Test doesn’t waste much time on laying out the inner workings of the industry. Instead, it makes merry out of in-jokes like Jordan’s delighted exclamation that “They’re going to reboot Caddyshack with dogs!”
It’s when the story pulls back from its righteous mission to burn down Hollywood hypocrisy that The Beta Test can get frustrating. Throughout the film, Jordan’s misadventures alternate with standalone scenes where other recipients of that enigmatic purple envelope are murdered by jealous spouses once their deception is exposed. Presented with no other context, it’s not clear if this is simply another variation of the overall theme or if there’s supposed to be a supernatural element to the film, some karmic force that’s driving otherwise normal people to kill the Jordans in their lives. And after a satisfying explanation of the real-world mechanics of the purple-envelope scam, the film ends on a vague, potentially apocalyptic note that would have had more dramatic heft were it presented a bit more clearly.
No time for all that, perhaps, as The Beta Test barrels forward at a pace that reflects Jordan’s panicky mental state. But it’s Cummings’ performance that keeps the energy of the film at that heart-attack inducing mania that seems to be the default setting for anyone above a certain pay grade in Hollywood. He plays Jordan like a downed power line jumping and fizzling in the street, or perhaps a malfunctioning cyborg; either way, the meanness seeps out from between his sharp, artificially whitened teeth as he graduates from vaping and fake smiles to impersonating an FBI agent and huffing nitrous oxide as his dilemma deepens.
Scenes where Jordan tries, and fails, to bond with an entry-level employee named Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke) at his office play like a comedic cousin to Kitty Green’s under-appreciated The Assistant, hitting similar notes in a different key. This is where The Beta Test shines as an example of creative allyship: Rather than try to convey a struggle with which they have no firsthand experience, as Edgar Wright does with sexual violence in Last Night In Soho, Cummings and McCabe zero in on an angle they do understand—the death scream of the untouchably powerful man—and can make fun of with precision. The results won’t help McCabe and Cummings land any well-paying sellout gigs any time soon. But if being a Hollywood insider is anything like it appears in this movie, is that really such a loss?…
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