“The Beta Test”: Satire or fantasy? #EIFF21 Review

Year: 2021

Runtime: 93 minutes

Writer-Directors: Jim Cummings, PJ McCabe

Actors: Jim Cummings, Olivia Grave Applegate, PJ McCabe

By Caz Armstrong

“Thunder Road” (2018) director Jim Cummings’s latest has a touch of “American Psycho” (2000) and a touch of “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988). But if there is a message here it’s muddled to the point of confusion.

Jordan (co-director Jim Cummings) is a hot shot LA talent agent who talks a big game and puts on an even bigger front. He’s king of the castle in his office, abusing his authority and yelling at female colleagues at will. But he struggles to book clients and is physically rotten on the inside, riddled with ulcers and rotting teeth.

Six weeks before his wedding he receives a mysterious purple invitation to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter with an anonymous stranger. After taking up the offer Jordan becomes obsessed with finding out who he met with, and who orchestrated the liaison. So much so that his life begins to spiral out of control.

“The Beta Test” Blue Finch Film Releasing

While the film seems to be making a satirical point about abusive personalities in Hollywood, it’s very unclear whether we’re supposed to be critiquing or supporting Jordan. He’s clearly a shallow and selfish person but he’s also quite broken. We are led to want him to do well, we just wish he’d do it in a kinder way.

This uncertain relationship we have with Jordan undermines any message the film may be trying to offer. This can’t be called a “commentary” on his shallow and abusive character traits because there was no comment. We are not invited to be especially critical of it except to note that he was the architect of his own downfall, limited though that downfall ultimately was.

Indeed, there were so many unchecked references to “Harvey” and lines that amounted to “you can’t say what you want about women in today’s snowflake climate” it felt like that was the actual message of the film. Woe is the successful cis white man for he can speak his innocent mind no longer. Jordan is never really painted as being too much at fault or really getting the full comeuppance he deserves.

Indeed, the final scene of the film just cements his viewpoint that he is powerful and desirable, and that women all want to sleep with him. Perhaps the writers were working through a fantasy rather than examining it in much detail.

If there was a worthy message about the impact of the #MeToo movement it was at best unclear, and at worst promoted derision of it. Add to that the fact that the film did not pass the Bechdel test and one wonders how hard the filmmakers were really trying.

It brings to mind those faux feminist moments in films, tossing out one vaguely feminist line without backing up that message in any other aspect of the film. Such moments are so hollow and pandering, they serve no good whatsoever.

Meanwhile, the premise of the scheme to set up anonymous sexual liaisons was poorly explained save for some vague connection with the dangers of social media. But to what end? The suggestion that getting involved might lead to some horrific violent act set up a tension that neither made sense or paid off. The reason why others were driven to murder was not explained either.

“The Beta Test” Blue Finch Film Releasing

The themes here could have been very interesting if they had been better explored. The idea of a hot shot talent agent putting on a veneer of success while his life corrodes around him is intriguing and leads us to wonder just how far he would go. But the delivery here was far too muddled and the message so unclear that it practically told the opposite statement from what was presumably intended.

If you have a point about abuse of power and treatment of women it might help to actually show the effects of that treatment on the women themselves? Just a thought.


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