Indie anxiety auteur Jim Cummings’ work is always trembling nervously with the hum or uneasy apprehension. His brilliant debut, “Thunder Road” throbbed with the cringe-y tension of a grieving divorcee policeman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and his follow-up, “The Wolf of Snow Hollow” layered murder mystery genre elements and the idea of the “toxic male beast within” on top of his signature jittery agitation. Cummings insecure men are generally uncomfortable in their own skin, self-loathing imposters afraid of being exposed as less than competent because they know deep down they are. And in “The Beta Test”—his latest effort, co-directed and co-written PJ McCabe—Cummings’ trademark storm of combustible nervous energy comes to Hollywood and turns from dark comedy into an anxiety horror based on the terror of being outed as a fraud and the fear of cancelation.
However, that’s just one level to unpack in the clever and multi-layered film that’s also about deceit, dishonesty, the panic of even the possibility of facing consequences, the uncertainty of living in a world with social upheaval, Internet shaming, and the bloodsucking nature of the leeches in Tinseltown. For one, “The Beta Test” is clearly inspired by the 2019/2020 legal dispute between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Hollywood talent agencies. To fully explain that conflict is to get into the weeds until you boil it down to its basics: creators vs. middlemen who take a percentage of creatives fees for putting their deals together. One of the villains here is the insidious practice of “packaging”— extra fees, essentially an additional tax agencies magically invented to pat themselves on the back financially for wrapping a project up together in a bow with all the talent involved conveniently under their agency umbrella (Writer/producer and labor proponent David Simon called the unethical practice “prima facie evidence of decades of racketeering. It’s that fucking ugly.” Here’s a good explainer of this and all the ways the agencies have created conflicts of interest and even potentially broken anti-trust rules).
So yes, agencies and talent agents are essentially the bad guys in “The Beta Test,” and that’s where Cummings and McCabe begin their story: as two shallow douchebag agents trying to shark their way through Hollywood, opening the film, bragging about the shady manner in which they signed a client (“is that legal?” one of the girlfriends asks? The answer is no one here cares).
Cummings plays Jordan, McCabe is PJ, and Virginia Newcomb is Caroline, Jordan’s long-suffering fiancé who has to endure his self-centered but fragile ego, his fake smile, his phony persona, and the 24-hour logorrhea of bullshit he vomits all day. The plot begins in earnest when Jordan receives a mysterious letter for an anonymous sexual encounter. The fantasy thrill of temptation pulses through the egocentric agent, and eventually, he relents having mind-blowing passionate sex in a hotel room, blindfolded, unable to see his partner. When it’s over, there’s no regret, just intrigue about who his mysterious tryst partner was (she’s blindfolded too). But as “The Beta Test” presages in its prologue with the grisly and ominous murder of a young L.A. woman, the tectonic plates of the world are shifting. Jordan confides in PJ, and panic starts to rise—is a rival agency trying to set them up? Was this all an elaborate plot? Soon, the paranoia rabbit hole of being caught finds Jordan ensnared in a sinister web of duplicity, cheating, looming consequences, and the dangers of sensitive digital data being exploited.
And while it’s never explicitly spelled out, the backdrop of “The Beta Test” is today’s discouraging climate for those that have something to feel guilty about—the ways culture has imploded and how Hollywood has collapsed in the era of the post #MeToo reckoning. While the film was likely written before “cancel culture” became today’s overused pearl-clutching buzzword, the movie is suffused with that exact sense of dread and fear that has terrorized the corners of Fox News, Conservative media, and those incredibly anxious about how culture’s seismic shifts have caused such social volatility and disruption and opened them up to previously untouchable consequences. The feeling the characters feel is unmistakable—the aggrieved sensation and resent of being watched like a hawk, of making a mistake, of being caught, of white men fearing their unchecked behavior can no longer run unchecked. It’s the idea that certain men feel suddenly suffocated in the world, and the movie is born out of the oppression white men began to feel when the privilege they were accustomed to began to give way to the faintest trace of equality for others. And it’s rather ingenious the way Cummings and McCabe use this cultural anxiety to riff on the way agencies are inherently irrelevant to the creative process and the ways they’ve tried to invite themselves to that table (“We don’t need agents to pretend to be producers,” one Chinese super-producer the guys are trying to represent says, disdainfully).
If the culture war texture turns you off, you’re potentially telling on yourself, and you’re missing the point; it adds layers of comical depth about insecurity, fear, and shame. But that’s just an establishing launchpad concept for the film baked into the nervous, neurotic lead character (and, if anything, the aim is to gut Hollywood). First and foremost, “The Beta Test” is squirmingly amusing, a hilarious skewering of the shallowness of the movie industry and the paranoia and mistrust that afflicts the guilty. “There’s no such thing as problems, just opportunities,” one sleazebag agent says to another. “The WGA is laughing at your starving children; it’s sick!” another says, protesting in a team meeting and urging colleagues not to back down in the WGA fight.
“The Beta Test” arguably gets a little lost in its labyrinth-y, overly-complex last act, when all is revealed behind the motives of the mysterious letter—something the agents twist and writhe about to hilarious effect—but overall, Cummings and McCabe’s film touches a raw nerve with sharp, funny, awkwardly prickly provocation. Battles rage in “The Beta Test.” Cultural ones in the background, business clashes in the middle, and personal ones of fear and how to move forward in a so-called environment of uncertainty. Ultimately, “The Beta Test” may out your true colors on the current cultural landscape; after all, what do you have to feel anxious about personally? You didn’t do anything wrong, did you? [B+]