Toxic masculinity goes to Hollywood in this polished, biting satire.
Synopsis: 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.
Partly a very niche exploration of a rich, distant world and partly a study of the need for once-powerful men to consult their own misdeeds in order to survive heightened scrutiny, The Beta Test is an engaging film that juggles serious topics with elements of humour to keep things moving.
Jim Cummings excels here, painting central character Jordan Hines as unbearably cocksure with underlying desperation and anxiety. It is a big performance, but one that fits entirely in the environment it takes place. As Hines struggles with the consequences of his actions, that openly confident and open veneer, constantly underscored by an intensely positive chorus of “we love that” or “we’re excited”. PJ (co-writer and director PJ McCabe) is given a slightly more redeemable position, but is still given to some of the same dramatics as Jordan, giving their scenes together a propulsive energy. It is to Cummings’ credits that the performance just grows and grows, presenting Jordan as a character whose own carefully crafted persona begins to strangle him.
Jordan’s perception of the world around him forms a major part of the early section of the film. As wedding plans are discussed, he imagines himself as the prey of women around him, an initial sign of his commitment crisis that expands into an unravelling that is compelling to watch even if you find yourself hating him. His perception that after years of being a consumer, he’s now to be consumed is the starting thread for much to follow. His wife-to-be Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) is hung up on details, often blissfully unaware that Jordan is often not listening to her. The skill of Cummings’ performance is in that it delights in the disintegration of Jordan and a life built on cannibalising, chewing up and spitting out others in pursuit of his ideal life – there’s no sympathy, yet at no point do you want to turn away.
The location of course, becomes a big part of this and references to men trying to operate in their world ‘post-Harvey’, is one of the central crises. The sense that the time for unpunished transgressions is a thing of the past and everyone within the business has skeletons in their closet about their treatment of other people (especially women) that may be unearthed at any time is palpable. That specific location and set of circumstances does make this a very specific satire which may well lose some viewers, although the observations on wider male behaviour and entitlement work even outside that context.
Arguably what works better is the delve that the film does into the world of algorithm and how the need to categorise and market every piece of social media content becomes an undeniable digital footprint that places even our most secret desires into the hands of large companies. The idea of ‘scrapable data’ extends beyond the Hollywood-specific setting and into something that extends outside of that world, feeling more universal and pressing. That Jordan and PJ find themselves dinosaurs in both the world of Hollywood agency and ill-equipped to face the new digital world is a particularly interesting aspect.
Perhaps fittingly, in toying with the conventions of the Hollywood satire and even erotic thriller, The Beta Test occasionally makes itself difficult to quantify. The opening scene, featuring an act of violence in opulent surroundings feels like the film at its most serious, lacking the winking and nudging that follows once we are introduced to Jordan. There is a cruelty to this scene – male violence at its most overt and terrifying, which the film uses to segue into the attitudes that make that kind of event all too plausible.
A magnetic, frequently unhinged performance from Cummings underpins this sharp satire, skewering the kind of damaging masculinity and the businesses that reward the domineering, boundary-pushing behaviour that the most toxic types promote.
4 out of 5 stars
The Beta Test plays as part of Grimmfest 2021. See the Grimmfest page for more information.