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REVIEW – “The Beta Test”: Shrewd Hollywood Sharks Hit a Damaging Spotlight

To say a film’s been ripped from the headlines would mean its virtues were well rooted in truthful events invading our public consciousness. The clear, underlying threads connecting unfaithfulness in our personal lives, and harassment in the workplace may not be so outlying anymore. In Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe’s The Beta Test, the paranoia that may emerge in not just hiding away an event, but also preventing others from falling into a similar trap takes our study of the subject just one step further. As one public figure catches himself in the clutches of a preemptive personal scandal, so too do those around him, without even being aware. Anxiety, and the pervasiveness of one’s online footprint, can boggle the mind like that. Fearful, but oblivious to the trigger.

Cummings’ lead character may very well be the epitome of anxiety on the brink of a collapse. He plays Jordan Hines, a genuine Hollywood shark at a struggling agency. With a persistent ulcer and the fearful scorn of his more successful colleagues, he’s hoping to strike a major deal with an overseas financier just ahead of his wedding to longtime sweetheart Caroline (Virginia Newcomb). He’s excited, but also a little listless. Wanting to be a little daring, he accepts an invitation in a nondescript purple letter. One for an anonymous romantic encounter in a hotel room with a blindfolded stranger, aided by a comment card to list any manner of in-room preferences. Hesitant at first, he willingly proceeds with it. But afterward is when the fear sets in, with Jordan on an eager quest to track down the other participant, and the source of the envelopes. He does not tread carefully, though; his actions bordering on near-insanity to uncover this weird mystery.

The maverick actor/co-writer/co-director wears crazy well. Never overworking the trope, maintaining some restraint, though the presence of a pair of mild vampire fangs among his teeth could pose some mild ambiguity in his screen presence. No big differential from last year’s The Wolf of Snowy Hollow, a dark horror comedy embracing the darkness of humanity and its inherent flaws. Beta List takes firm steps onto that same familiar field, albeit with a sharper edge dabbling in the pitfalls of extramarital affairs. Cummings and McCabe find certain ease in positioning this tawdry tale in a post-Harvey Weinstein universe, its viciousness gaining further realism right from the offset. It opens with a trendy couple on the rocks, the wife looking to report a domestic violence case while still timely. They too fell trap to the charms of the purple envelope, the news further propelling Jordan’s fragile, egg-like shell to crack further.

He may not be claimed as a predator, but his complex behavioral makeup does fill out many checkmarks. While in the office, or stumbling onto clues, Jordan comes off stubborn, jittery, with some verbal tics, and susceptibility to outbursts. Many of them are often directed toward Caroline and his less-than-supportive co-workers P.J. (McCabe) and Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke). He recognizes change is knocking at the door, where he may not survive if he can’t play the role of the bigger guy in the room, commanding his presence.

When the plot doesn’t distract itself in over-focusing on Jordan’s mental fracturing, his grasp on day-to-day tedium keeps elements firmly grounded. Hiding his insecurities takes a figurative village, readying for an overdue marriage ceremony and embarking in light amateur cooking and mountain hiking to get out his frazzled nerves, to limiting effect. Succumbing to his carnal impulses does blow out plenty of steam, but the consequences hit a broad curve, where the final punishment could be murder. Talk about a tightrope act, balancing the mundanity life, the aggressive agent system, and the cautious fear of an anti-hero facing a partial extinction by wrongful infatuation.

At times, it’s more than enough to fill out 90 minutes of secrets-and-lies storytelling all too inspired by societal reality. You can feel some sympathy for Jordan as he sharply spirals into a state of complete mental decline, along with a sense of mild cringe for his business tactics, and a dark sense of humor as he gasps for air. Near the end, Jordan finds himself apologizing and clarifying his work isn’t as crude, shallow, and greed struck as fiction points out, making a specific nod to Entourage as he goes. Cummings might be there alongside the idealistic character he’s realizing, exuding a slick style but conflicted morals. The impact is all too brief to propose any staying power, cramming varied ideas into a singular script. At one point, it’s like a detective caper. Another, it’s an erotic thriller. Later, it’s a low-key romantic drama unsure of its motivation. Its mind can’t be made up, and while my overall enjoyment wasn’t completely impeded, it was a little concerning how many tonal swings were being thrown.

Despite these faults in judgment, Cummings and McCabe do manage to keep a steady pace and focus with their limited time. Their story goals converge with delight as a multi-layered study. One not entirely on post-Me Too, as much as it also delicately handles Hollywood’s complicated relationship with the internet (the final 20 minutes, especially). Alongside a diverse character framing, furthering Cummings’ range as an actor, embracing his inner Lynchian weird. The Beta Test may be a little too expansive for its own good, throwing too many ingredients into its tall pot. Those separate parts alone work fine to propel this seductive, mostly sickening evaluation of a dying breed in the public conscience to a fair conclusion. Might not aim right, but the intent is at least honest, and unafraid to poke a bit of fun. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)

The Beta Test is available on VOD, and playing Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema November 6-9; film not rated, but it’s the equivalent of an R; 93 minutes.