Saturday, January 08, 2022

Beta Test

It's like Fatal Attraction, except it was anonymous. Jordan Hines is soon to be married, but he accepted an invitation for a masked sexual rendezvous, no names attached. By the way, he is a Hollywood talent agent. If, as the flim-flam man says, you can’t cheat an honest man, he is probably doomed. He certainly has a lot coming, so his implosion is well-deserved in Jim Cummings & PJ McCabe’s Beta Test, which is now available on VOD from IFC Films.

Hines is a big talker, but it is his friend and co-worker PJ who is the closer. That means his position at his agency is a little shaky, but it doesn’t stop him from inappropriately treating his assistant Jaclyn. (He is still a far cry from Kevin Spacey in
Swimming with Sharks, but HR should still have a talk with him.) When he gets a purple envelope inviting him to a night of debauchery, complete with a check-off list of kinks, he makes an attempt to resist, but he can’t.

In the days following, he cannot stop thinking about the encounter with the mystery woman, who also happened to be masked. He snuck a peak, but he can’t be sure who she was. Growing increasingly preoccupied, he starts a bull-in-a-china-shop investigation of the purple envelopes, potentially linking them to the murder from the prologue. Hines was already difficult to work with, but he becomes increasingly erratic and even delusional as his obsession mounts.

It is hard to say what
Beta Test is, but if Eyes Wide Shut represents a genre than it would be part of it. Cummings (part of the screenwriter-director tandem) gives an amazingly committed and unhinged performance, but Hines is such a loathsome person, most viewers will start rooting for the mysterious unseen cabal pulling the string behind the scenes.

In contrast, McCabe (the other half of the team) gets a lot of laughs and provides constant reality checks as his namesake, PJ, the more professional agent. As co-directors, they manage to wring a lot of suspense out of some sly sleight of hand. They also brutally roast the rapaciousness and mercenary phoniness of the mega-talent agent industry. However, it is hard to understand why his fiancée sticks with him. Virginia Newcomb is viscerally convincing when portraying her revulsion at his manic behavior, but the source of her initial attraction remains elusive.

Beta Test
certainly does not glamorize Hollywood. Cummings & McCabe show off a lot of talent on both sides of the camera, but the truth is there is actually less to the film than initially meets the eye. It is distinctive, but it should have taken viewers further through the looking glass. Earning a moderate recommendation (for attitude and style points), Beta Test is now available from IFC Films (file this under 2021 year-end reviews).