Written by Anna Harrison
“Everybody still wants to be Harvey.”
This sentiment isn’t explicitly expressed in The Beta Test until the end of the film, but nevertheless makes itself felt from the get-go as we follow Hollywood agent Jordan Hines, who is inching ever closer to the end of his fraying rope as he struggles to maintain some semblance of control in his life, grasping for the days where his white male ego meant something more. As played by Jim Cummings, who co-wrote and directed The Beta Test alongside PJ McCabe, Jordan is a compulsively watchable snake, his manic smile never quite reaching his eyes, his laugh just a little too forced, all of these sociopathic tendencies underpinned by a real sense of anxiety and dread and the knowledge that Jordan is one moment away from unraveling completely and having a nervous breakdown.
But he can still pretend with an unnerving ease, smiling at clients and offering his assistant networking help, giving a better performance than his actor clients. He pretends to like his job, pretends that he has power and control, pretends to be thoughtful and attentive to his fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).
So when a mysterious letter in a purple envelope comes along inviting Jordan to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter at a hotel, Jordan goes, eager to finally get some sort of real thrill in his life. Jordan—blindfolded—has sex with this unknown woman—also blindfolded—and intercut with this are scenes of Jordan elsewhere plastering his fake smile on and saying various iterations of, “That’s exciting.” (“The audience for television is so much larger than independent film,” he says, in a none-too-subtle meta moment in a film littered with them; unsubtle, but not ineffective.) But in this hotel room, free from pretending, it actually is exciting for Jordan.
And that’s it. No more letters, no more anything, just the lingering memory of brief few moments of bliss, and so Jordan becomes increasingly paranoid to the point of hallucinating, or at least mishearing innocent remarks from his assistant and snapping at her. Losing his grip on reality, Jordan confesses to his only friend, PJ (fellow writer and director PJ McCabe), and they begin to track down where the envelope came from.
From here, McCabe and Cummings weave together various disparate threads, some not given enough weight or thought to be as substantial as they ought to be, but all coming together to illustrate the rapid loss of control and identity occurring in Jordan’s life. Much of it comes together in a critique of the Internet that is simultaneously both too on-the-nose and not developed enough, largely tacked onto the end and stated rather than shown; luckily, anchored by such a strong performance by Cummings—by turns pitiful and repulsive, but always electrifying—The Beta Test never loses your attention.
Even if The Beta Test doesn’t quite reach the height of its lofty ambitions, it remains a gripping narrative and a searing indictment of Hollywood and its (our, really) warped masculinity. #MeToo didn’t end sexual assault, or adultery, or any of it, it just made people get more creative about hiding it, as The Beta Test shows. “I think the world’s about to become a fucking horrifying place,” Jordan says. “I think I just watched it happen.” But hasn’t it always been one? It’s just wrapped in a different package now.
The Beta Test Trailer
The Beta Test screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.