by Anton Bitel
Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe’s The Beta Test opens with a tense domestic situation. A Swedish woman surreptitiously calls the police about a fight in her LA apartment, before rejoining her husband at the dinner table. It is immediately clear that he is controlling, aggressive, gaslighting, abusive. Her fear evident, she mentions to him how, after receiving a “purple letter” inviting her “to meet an admirer in a hotel room”, that single encounter has made her grasp her own unhappiness, so that she now wants to leave their ten-year marriage. In response, the husband brutally kills, even overkills, her. All the film’s themes are laid out here: compromised relationships, desire for something different, and truths which, once spoken, violently shatter any illusion of contentment.
On the surface, the protagonist of The Beta Test seems to have it all: for Jordan Hines (Cummings) is a slick, fast-talking Hollywood ‘packaging’ agent with an expensive car and an enviable apartment, and he is about to get married to lovely, devoted Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) and to get into bed with big-shot Chinese producer Raymond (Wilky Lau) on the deal of the century. Yet the stomach ulcer to which Jordan regularly refers points to the doubts and stresses that gnaw away from the inside at his carefully constructed veneer of self-confidence. Jordan is a study in inauthenticity. He secretly smokes and drinks, while boasting to everyone that he has long since given up. His status vehicle is in fact a rental. He smiles at everyone but likes no one – except maybe his old friend and work partner PJ (McCabe) – and even his perfect teeth require constant attention. Despite his love for Caroline, he is always thinking about, and looking at, other women. And as the very business for which he works, profiteering from exploitative packages that bring no obvious advantage to his clients, is being openly challenged by the Writers Guild of America, Jordan’s domestic life is also at risk of collapse. For after he too receives a purple-bound invitation to a sexual assignation in a hotel room and cannot resist taking the bait, his whole world starts to come apart, as he loses his grip on who he is and what he really wants.
As Jordan goes searching for the woman with whom he had his brief, blindfolded tryst, his repeated (if unconvincing) impersonation of a federal police officer serves not only to show yet more imposture from this deeply insincere man, and to conjure slyly Cummings’ leading part as a police officer in his breakout feature as writer/director Thunder Road (2018), but also to align The Beta Test to the more unhinged neighbourhood of LA neo-noir, not far from where films like Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (2006), David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake (2018) and David Buchanan’s Laguna Ave. (2021) reside. Yet Jordan’s strange, obsessive quest for the dream girl, the fantasy and the desirable other is also a journey of confrontation with the reality of himself. “I can see myself and I don’t want to be like this,” he tells his increasingly exasperated fiancée, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Yet for all Jordan’s nervousness that perhaps he is as easily taken for a ride as his clients, only Caroline can see that Jordan’s alienation from his own identity marks him as a victim not of modernity nor of technology, but of the human condition itself.
A ‘beta test’ is a final round of troubleshooting with real users before a product is released to a wider market – and the rôle played in the film by this meaning of its title will eventually become clear. Yet the title also brings another sense. For Jordan – played by Cummings in an edgily neurotic performance that fully channels Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) – is a would-be alpha whose beta status is tested and exposed by his self-destructive, self-owning actions and experiences. While The Beta Test is certainly a satire both of a money-grubbing, pussy-(or penis-)grabbing Hollywood, and of an era where our innermost thoughts and feelings, the very stuff that we imagine defines us, have become freely available and legible for digital manipulation, it is also concerned with a more timeless brand of anxiety. In spite, or perhaps because, of his bad faith, odious self-pity and endless hunger for what he does not have, Jordan is just like the other characters in Cummings and McCabe’s film – and also, troublingly, just like us. Those purple letters, far from being invitations to wildly exotic possibility, just deliver a message of uncomfortable truth, revealing and exposing who we really are: people lost amid the shifting hierarchies, hostilities and hypocrisies of existence.
The Beta Test is out in UK cinemas on the 15th October