REVIEW: The Beta Test [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 93 minutes
    Release Date: November 5th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe
    Writer(s): Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe

It must be absolutely exhausting pretending to be you.

There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe‘s The Beta Test. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s all there right on the surface in an “inside baseball” kind of way, but audiences who aren’t versed in Hollywood or the film industry beyond headline tabloid fodder may find themselves wondering what’s going on since the insight and comedy arrives at very high speeds with zero interest in pumping the brakes. For anyone who’s seen Cummings’ debut feature Thunder Road, you’ll know that it’s a pace he works extremely well in as a harried lead forever overthinking every waking minute of his day. Nothing is funnier than those silent scenes of him visibly replaying and reacting to a previously scarring exchange inside his head.

His talent agent Jordan Hines cannot stop doing this here because his entire career balances on his ability to twist conversations his way even if it means lying to his target, his loved ones, or himself. His words are thus always either one step ahead (when injecting himself into situations he wasn’t entirely invited to participate in) or one step behind (blindly replying to people while still devoting his energy to something completely different). It leads to hilarious results—especially when the former examples allow his counterpart to call him out on his bullshit. That’s when we see Jordan’s face drop as he absorbs the truth-bombs he’s willfully ignored to be able to smile at the end and shovel more patronizingly empty words onto the pile.

Jordan and his co-worker PJ (McCabe) deal in illusions in a rapidly dying industry now that technological advancements have made them obsolete in the corporate landscape. They’re like fast-talking politicians telling potential clients about all the unnecessary things they do in the context of their competitors before spinning those same things as necessary in the context of themselves. Signing with them is thus more about what the other guy can’t do than what they can. Everything becomes a matter of perspective and control. If Jordan possesses the power in the relationship, he can get his mark to do whatever he wants. Earning that power today is nearly impossible, though, since he’s a dinosaur born of another time. He promises connections most can acquire by themselves via the internet.

And that’s why he never should have opened the purple envelope with his name in gold foil. Never let yourself become the mark. Just as he sometimes catches a fish when doing the same, however, he opens his mouth and gets hooked by the prize. An “admirer” apparently wants to meet him in a hotel for no-strings-attached sex. Not only that, but its wedding invitation aesthetic also comes with a meal card by way of sex acts and preferences. Check those you wish to perform or be performed on you and have the best night of your life anonymously (red flag considering an “admirer” would theoretically know your identity already). Jordan initially becomes afraid his fiancé (Virginia Newcomb‘s Caroline) will see, but curiosity ultimately proves stronger.

Jordan is suddenly left vulnerable in one more way than he was before. Because let’s face it: we’re all one accidental click away from having our identities stolen or dark secrets revealed. Not only does he work in an industry that’s constantly targeted for data dumps post-Harvey Weinstein, but his specific job demands he look the part of someone with much more clout than he actually possesses. He’s therefore a target on his own for blackmail whether he can afford the ransom and having a social media footprint means he’s exposed for a catered assault. Is that what this encounter is? Maybe. It might even be something worse considering how people start dying. Are they a byproduct of these envelopes or of mankind’s fallibility? Perhaps both.

The film quickly becomes about the guilt and uncertainty eating away at Jordan. When will the other shoe drop? Is there another shoe? His mind begins playing tricks on him with every interaction becoming clouded by what happened. And that only gets exacerbated by the fact he has no clue who he slept with considering he was given a blindfold and used it. Is that cute woman across the room smiling at him? Did PJ’s wife trick him into an affair? Was Caroline testing him somehow? Jordan’s mind starts racing towards insane possibilities all while trying to keep his job in a “climate” where adultery would ruin him. And that’s when the real him comes out. Or is it the “him” he believes the job demands?

This toxicity is the point. When backed against a wall of his own making—because it doesn’t matter who’s pulling the strings if he responded—he turns feral. Unless, of course, he’s called on it. Then he withers and runs because everything he’s ever done to project strength has been peacocking. His crimes start piling up as desperation grows to a fever pitch with which his mouth cannot keep up. And all for what? Because he didn’t think he could ask Caroline to do the things he checked on that card? Because he feels he’s owed the so-called “perks” of a position in Hollywood that’s now been “ruined” by accountability? Jordan pretends to be someone he’s not for a living yet cries victim the second he’s been caught.

The Beta Test is an entertainingly excoriating satire as a result that only gets better for those who can catch the name-dropping, industry speak, and self-referential jabs (the late addition of “WGA” to Cummings and McCabe’s names during the end credits is comedic timing at its finest). It’s also an assured production with memorable editing techniques that ultimately make it so we can never know exactly what is real. Are those split-second cuts injected into our view glimpses of scenes adding context to the truth or imagined leaps on Jordan’s part to manufacture the context he desires? Cummings’ devolution is so swift and all-encompassing that it doesn’t necessarily matter because the latter is his truth regardless. The question is thus only this: will Jordan finally learn his lesson?

[1] PJ McCabe as ‘PJ,’ Jacqueline Doke as ‘Jaclyn,’ and Jim Cummings as “Jordan’ in Jim Cummings’ and PJ McCabe’s THE BETA TEST. Courtesy of IFC Films.
[2] Jim Cummings as “Jordan’ in Jim Cummings’ and PJ McCabe’s THE BETA TEST. Courtesy of IFC Films.
[3] Jim Cummings as ‘Jordan’ and Virginia Newcomb as ‘Caroline’ in Jim Cummings’ and PJ McCabe’s THE BETA TEST. Courtesy of IFC Films.

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