[Review] 'The Beta Test' is an Alpha Satire that Castrates The Toxic Masculinity of The Film Industry
“Everybody just wants to be famous…”
…That’s the problem with the film industry. Well, one of many. Those involved in it tend to find themselves in one of two camps: the ones who think everyone else believes in the above and therefore can’t trust anyone, and those who do just want to be famous, look at people as the next favor, and therefore don’t trust anyone. In directors Jim Cummings (The Wolf of Snow Hollow) and PJ McCabe latest offering, The Beta Test, the two present a Hitchcockian thriller that viciously cuts open the gut of the film industry and exposes the snakes squirming inside.
The Beta Test follows Hollywood agent Jordan (Jim Cummings), who might as well be a monster wearing a man-suit. A guy who has been so painfully fake with people for so long, everyone has become an object to him, even his fiancé, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb). So, when Jordan receives a letter inviting him to a sexual encounter with an anonymous admirer, he practically jumps at the chance. But after the blind-folded meeting, Jordan finds himself determined to find out who the woman was, sinking into a pit of infidelity, murder and extreme paranoia.
When you’re first getting into the film industry, everyone tells you that you should start off as an assistant at an agency. This is where you meet the major players and have the opportunity to schmooze your way up. It’s people like Jordan that made me too terrified to even try that route. Jordan is, quite simply, a gaping, slimy asshole. He’s egotistical. Rude. Belittling (especially to women). A liar. And he wears a fake smile as wide as the Joker’s. If you’ve seen Kevin Spacey (speaking of assholes) in the film Swimming with Sharks, then you have a pretty good idea of the kind of awful Jordan is. He’s the kind of character you love to hate, and Cummings is hypnotic in an unhinged performance that berates the audience with all of the cringe that they can handle.
Cummings is a delight when playing over the top characters struggling to contain themselves, and his role in The Beta Test may be Jim’s best yet. He’s like Patrick Bateman after two pots of coffee. I don’t think there’s a single scene where Cummings doesn’t look like a teapot about to scream. The Beta Test is, after all, a cutthroat satire that neuters the toxic masculinity of the film industry, and it uses Jordan to strip bare all of the ugliness lurking underneath the empty promises and devilish grins. Jordan uncomfortably inserts himself into conversations with “important people”, attempts—and fails—to convince others he’s a cop while trying to unravel his sexual mystery, uses others, all while harboring a violence about to burst.
And it’s hilarious.
Along with Cummings turned up to eleven performance, the filmmakers insert a heavy dose of quirky camp that keeps us endeared to the central character, even if he’s the last person you’d ever want to get to know. Time and again, Jordan is caught on a downward spiral of a man who can't handle a world where men are called out for their bullshit. He doesn't trust a single person around him and is losing his mind because of it. We’re the lucky ones who get to sit back and watch him be embarrassed over and over again. The Beta Test is just one big giant middle finger to people like Jordan, and it couldn’t be more entertaining.
This isn’t purely a comedy, though. Not at all. You’ll laugh, sure, but for every moment of goofy irony is another which will have you clutching your seat. The Beta Test opens with a woman calling the cops to report a domestic dispute before telling her husband about cheating on him through a similar anonymous letter as Jordan’s, immediately resulting in bloody brutality. The filmmakers explore domestic violence and the misogynistic objectification of women by men with an unflinching eye. Get ready to be uncomfortable, because The Beta Test puts you in the shoes of an unstable pervert. Everywhere Jordan goes, he can’t help staring at other women. Hell, he even eyes up fellow agent (friend?) PJ’s (PJ McCabe) wife while she’s sitting across the table and his fiancé is next to him! Cinematographer Kenneth Wales makes us the voyeur through Jordan’s P.O.V., focusing on these women under a warm glow and zooming into them slowly, forgetting everything else in the scene.
As is the case with the other men in the film, women are nothing but sex machines to Jordan, meant to service him at the drop of a hat. The misogyny is strong as he verbally abuses just about every woman he meets, filled with moments that make you want to reach through the screen and rip his goddamn dick off. Jordan views everything through a primal lens, and we follow him deep into his own madness as he imagines them devolving into their basic animal instincts, snarling and tearing at their clothes with an uncontrollable need.
Perhaps the scariest part of The Beta Test is that it isn’t hard to imagine that most film industry bros think like this.
The Beta Test moves at a brisk pace, carried by Cummings energetic performance and the filmmakers’ masterful direction, but if there’s anything that makes this film a Beta and not an Alpha, it’s a muddled third act that’s more head scratching than satisfying, which is a kiss of death for any film centered entirely on a mystery. The Beta Test leaves you hanging on just about every question you might have, while adding others that overcomplicate an otherwise straightforward mystery. But not everyone needs answers, and some of you may enjoy that The Beta Test is a movie that doesn’t hand deliver you a postcard, but makes you work to see it for what it is.
All in all, The Beta Test is an entertaining though disturbing walk through the underbelly of the film industry that comes at the audience with sudden, shocking brutality. Hopefully, it has some of you rethinking how you treat women and frankly everyone, lest you find yourself in a thirst trap where the only way out is death. Or castration. Whatever’s necessary.
The Beta Test comes to VOD November 5th from IFC Films.
By Matt Konopka