THE BETA TEST (2021)
A married Hollywood agent receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter and becomes ensnared in a sinister world of lying, infidelity, and digital data.
The life of an engaged Hollywood talent agent, Jordan (co-writer and co-director Jim Cummings), unravels after he accepts an invitation to a hotel room for no-strings-attached sex with a stranger, in this unflattering film noir that uncomfortably dissects Hollywood and those pulling the strings behind the scenes.
The Beta Test is the third picture from Jim Cummings, whose astoundingly emotional debut, Thunder Road (2018), won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW. Now sharing the director’s chair with debuting filmmaker PJ McCabe, the film shares significant DNA with David Lynch and David Cronenberg. The Beta Test examines those failing to move with the times, peeling back the seediness of a changing industry.
Cummings’ slimy talent agent reeks of over-priced aftershave and desperation. On the surface, Jordan is a high-level agent at A.P.E, an aggressive talent agency, and the actor’s stilted and often manic performance is in stark contrast to his empathetic role as a cop in Thunder Road. Think the manic energy of Jim Carrey in Liar Liar (1997) meets the calculated charm of Christian Bale in American Psycho (2000).
Jordan has a beautiful fiancé (Virginia Newcomb) and a generous expense account, but his success is all on the surface, as not so subtlely shown by the removal of pearly dental veneers at the end of the day. These types of people all mourn the end of the Weinstein era, where no issue was unable to be solved with a business card or cheque.
He later finds a purple envelope in his mailbox, inviting him to a mysterious hotel room hook-up. For some reason, he takes the bait and has Eyes Wide Shut (1999)-style masked sex there. He only sees the woman once, but she becomes the third wheel in his engagement, as her identity and the violent deaths now surround the little purple invitation haunt him. Jordan soon becomes manic, trying to figure out who she is and whether there’s a secret organisation behind these invitations.
In the backdrop of this erotic-thriller-meets-Hollywood-satire (a line about “rebooting Caddyshack with dogs” is especially effective) is a murderous subplot. Jordan soon discovers that people across Los Angeles are being brutally murdered after being revealing their affair. The bloody opening feels a little too voyeuristically graphic; shocking for shock’s sake. These graphic deaths don’t feel necessary and this whole subplot will soon be forgotten once the credits roll.
Jordan and his cocky co-worker (played by co-director McCabe) investigate the murders and how it’s connected. He becomes more and more comfortable telling lies, even telling people he’s a cop at one point. The Beta Test effectively explores the film noir detective genre, with Cummings easily sliding into such a role. Their investigation leads them to uncover that “the internet” uses clicks, likes, and statuses to make a profit. This takedown of the algorithm could’ve been a sharp satire on how many secrets we unwittingly give up online… but, instead, it’s a weak lead in a detective case. The final act doesn’t land, especially if you’re fully invested in the sleuthing.
Cummings again dissects masculinity in America, only this time turning the camera on the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. It shares the same theme with his previous two features, by exploring the depleting self-worth and failure of the modern man. The Beta Test’s leading man is a fraud and essentially a con man; sociopathically calm and collected on the outside. But this can make the performance seem a little cold. The fake laughs and bad dialogue are clearly purposeful choices rather than amateur acting (which perhaps could not be said for Newcomb’s performance).
Sadly, the jokes don’t land and it’s too droll and dark for its own good. The comedy instead comes across as awkward, which could be easily mistaken for bad acting. The low budget of The Beta Test can also be distracting at times, as there’s something uncannily set-like about its hotel rooms and mansions in the Hollywood Hills… although maybe that is the point.
The Beta Test does a fantastic job of dealing with the way the industry imploding post #MeToo. The dread of ‘cancel culture’ peppers the film, as does the fear of how today’s culture is moving on without such men. No longer will their actions come without consequences, but they’re still pushing it to the limit. The men are in power, and the women are there to please them, but this allows the writers to explore just how resentful men are of this new world.
All this sharp and smart satire gets lost in the overly complex and twisty last act. The raw nerves touched sting less with this clash of thriller, satire, and film noir genres. What The Beta Test will do is force you to consider your relationship with the algorithm. The Beta Test is nevertheless a slick mix of dark satire and detective thriller. The message may get a little lost in all the gore and acting choices, and it never hits the dizzying heights of Thunder Road, but it offers a smart take on the industry—even if the final act gets a little silly.
USA • UK | 2021 | 93 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents The Beta Test in UK cinemas on 15 October 2021.
writers & directors: Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe.
starring: Jim Cummings, Virginia Newcomb, PJ McCabe, Kevin Changaris, Olivia Grace Applegate, Jessie Barr, Christian Hillborg, Malin Barr, Jacqueline Doke & Wilky Lau.