The Beta Test review – shiny satire of Tinseltown culture is a study in smarm

Writer-director-actor Jim Cummings’ has already made two films, Thunder Road en The Wolf of Snow Hollow, which were very well received on the American indie circuit. His latest, The Beta Test, co-written and directed with its co-star PJ McCabe, is part delicious satire of Hollywood culture and part frustratingly muddled thriller. But the good bits are sufficiently impressive it wouldn’t be fair to hold its flaws against it too much. We mustn’t be greedy for perfection.

Greed, as it happens, is probably the major sin of a Tinseltown agent called Jordan (played by Cummings), followed closely by lust, wrath, pride and envy. Given his rigorously gym-toned figure it would seem that Jordan is less guilty of gluttony or sloth, but there’s probably more than enough venal behaviour here to condemn him to the circle in hell reserved for unctuous talent wranglers and bank managers. As the film gets going, we learn Jordan is going to be married soon to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), about whom Jordan and the film itself seem to have so little interest, apart from making fun of her obsession with her upcoming nuptials, that we don’t even know what she does for a living.

When a purple envelope arrives in the mail offering Jordan a chance to meet an “admirer” for “anonymous no-strings-attached sex” at a hotel, he hems and haws over the invite and its enclosed RSVP card and finally fills it out. (Its menu options include “sub,” “dom,” “pegging,” “face-sitting” and the like.) But elsewhere in Los Angeles other couples who have signed up for similar encounters are facing dire consequences, including murderous spouses. Will this be just as bad for Jordan, ook, or – even worse – damage his career?

Cummings and McCabe powder the script’s shiny, mirrored surface with lots of snort-worthy mentions of the recent dispute between the Writers’ Guild and Hollywood’s biggest agencies, as well as references to the industry’s collective shame over what “Harvey” did. (Like horror cinema’s Jason or Freddy, Weinstein is now a single-monikered monster.) And yet Jordan is still a class-A asshole to those who work under him, while shamelessly sucking up to the talent. It’s a study in smarm to watch him use the same hackneyed cliches over and over again – there’s a great montage of him talking about how “excited” he is about every project, like a Pointer Sister on meth. All the black comedy is terrific; the stuff about Jordan hunting down who sent the invitation for the hook-up is less, wel, exciting.

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