A scathing satire of both social media and the film industry, The Beta Test is an angry, fiery indictment of the toxic culture of Hollywood and show business, right down to its production. A project that was 100% crowdfunded, co-directors and stars Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe made it a specific point to circumvent the traditional corporate-schmoozing model of moviemaking in order to have total control over the film they wanted to make – and to make sure they wouldn’t have to answer to any industry jagoffs.
Not that the premise would have been one they could pitch around very easily. Cummings plays Jordan Hines, an evidently successful talent agency executive and perpetual asshole. He’s the kind of insanely cruel corporate dick you’d think is an exaggeration but is, by all accounts, as real as they come (according to the directors, many of his lines are taken straight from former studio/agency employees who broke NDAs to speak about their experiences). Jordan is getting married in a few weeks to Caroline (Newcomb) but follows through on a mysterious invitation for a no-strings-attached sexual encounter, and his world becomes tangled up in a sinister plot as he lies and bullies his way around looking for answers.
It’s an erotic thriller set-up matched with the sort of morally dubious character that would have De Palma’s ears perked, but it plays like more of a farce in practice. Amidst the violence and intrigue is a movie that’s more interested in pointedly skewering the film industry by taking the lies and deception of its plot and making them comparable to the everyday goings-on of Hollywood. As Jordan slowly slips into full panic mode, it’s telling how his vicious behavior toward his subordinates (especially if they happen to be a woman) is treated as just another day at the office. He’s played with fervor by Cummings, embodying his now-familiar role as the neurotic, loose-cannon guy bound to blow up at a second’s notice. He’s well-fit for the part and his performance here is excellent and often very funny, though it should be noted that it’s his third time in a row playing what is essentially the same persona (after previous features Thunder Road and The Wolf of Snow Hollow), and the beats are getting familiar.
The one thing that makes Jordan stand out is just how vehemently unlikeable he really is; there are truly no redeeming qualities to his character, no subtle emotional nuances to try and make you understand him. This is not a man to be understood – this is a man who deserves every bad thing he has coming to him. It’s a well-realized caricature in that regard, refusing to shy away from depicting its main character as the lowlife he is. Past that, it gets too ambitious for its own good: There’s a good amount of paranoia tucked in about the modern age of the internet, Jordan’s online footprint being part of the catalyst for his demise. The threads about data scraping, the scathing satire, and the thriller at the heart of it all never quite cohere properly and make for a particularly muddled ending. But the main targets here are clear as day, and they’re lined up cleanly in the crosshairs to be hit square in the chest.
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