There is no test in The Beta Test but there is a Beta – lead character Jordan (Jim Cummings), a would-be Hollywood big wheel who’s not quite got the clout of a producer or agent, because he’s more a “packager” of deals, one of those legends in his own lunchtime who secretly wants to be Harvey Weinstein, though he’s too attuned to the zeitgeist to ever let on.
Like Griffin Mill in Robert Altman’s The Player, Jordan looks impressive to people who aren’t in the know, but is less impressive to those who are. And he feels this so keenly it’s destroying him. When a potential client, an actual hotshot with money to spray about, openly grabs Jordan by the balls at a party, Jordan reacts by laughing wildly at the you-guys-ness of it all, and then goes back to his workplace to belittle the female junior. In fact before any encounter with any other person in The Beta Test, Jordan will have worked out, to an exquisite number of decimal points, the exact social standing of who he’s dealing with and adjusted his character accordingly – he can flip from sycophant to tyrant in a way that, bizarrely, recalls Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers. Perhaps it’s Cummings’s lankiness.
Cummings is also the writer and director, alongside PJ McCabe, and the two of them wrap this bracingly unpleasant and darkly funny exposé of the shitty end of LA life inside a thriller, much as The Player did in 1992, In a Lonely Place did in 1950 and Chinatown (Cummings and McCabe admit a debt) did in 1974.
But first a gruesome opening sequence in which a Swedish woman phones the cops to tell them of a “domestic incident”, even though nothing’s happened yet. Then she proceeds to tell her boyfriend that it’s over between them, ever since she had a sexual encounter with a mystery somebody in an unnamed hotel. He reacts badly – she knew he would – and there is a giallo-inspired pre-credits bit of slaughter. Cummings and McCabe have set out to throw the audience off guard – not least because the whole sequence is in Swedish – and succeeded.
On to the main event, and our hero (term used loosely), Jordan receives an invitation to go and have no-strings sex with a mystery somebody in an as-yet-unnamed hotel. All he has to do is tick a few boxes listing various sexual preferences and turn up on the day, wearing a blindfold as ordered.
In spite of the fact that he’s only six weeks away from getting married to the sweet Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), Jordan accepts, entering the crepuscular world of Hollyweird and beginning his own slo-mo collapse from the inside out. The sexual encounter is largely a Maguffin allowing Cummings and McCabe to get on screen all the awful behaviour they’ve encountered down the years working in LA’s entertainment biz and concentrating it all in Jordan, who toxically lacks integrity, is out of depth in the “packaging” game and has become so wrapped up in his own brand that he hasn’t noticed times have moved on.
Is it fun watching a bloviating try-hard shitbag fall apart in dog-eat-dog Hollywood? Of course it is. It’s also vastly entertaining watching the peccadilloes of others being turned into entertainment. Especially as Jordan is so oblivious. At a certain point Mozart’s Requiem starts up on the soundtrack and… well, you’ve got to smile.
And then Jordan decides to turn detective and find out where the mystery invitation to have no-holds sex came from, and the Maguffin is pressed into doing actual dramatic work. The exposé side of The Beta Test starts to jostle uneasily with the thriller side for dominance.
Cummings and McCabe do it all with the misogynistic, women-as-meat “male gaze” of the beta. If there’s a female in the room the camera is down her cleavage or flicking looks in her direction, all part of Jordan’s terrible but never admitted feeling of inadequacy.
McCabe I have not come across before but is an old friend of Cummings, apparently, and as co-writer and director also makes a great “normal guy” foil to the increasingly looney Jordan, as PJ, his much more grounded and business-savvy partner in packaging.
The Beta Test makes it three in a row to watch from Cummings. Alongside Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow he’s proving himself really adept at making unsettling films shot deliberately in what you might call Journeyman Hollywood Vanilla style. As if to say “howdya like them apples?”
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© Steve Morrissey 2021