By Clara Miranda Scherffig
The Beta Test
Dir. Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe, U.S., IFC Films
Sometimes one needs a genre movie to sort out what’s really scary about the world. In recent years, films such as Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Save Yourselves!, and lately, Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, have used the forms of horror, thriller, or sci-fi to get at their social critiques (even The Assistant has the air of a suspense thriller). The Beta Test by Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe—which premiered at Berlinale's Encounters alongside Nekrasova’s debut—finds a happy place among these titles, condensing Hollywood, #metoo, “cancel culture,” and “The Internet” in a satisfying work of satire that entertains while casting a gloomy shadow.
The two writer-directors also star as Jordan and PJ, talent agents working for a CAA-like fictional company in downtown L.A. Triggered by a purple invitation to an “anonymous, no strings-attached sex encounter” in a hotel room, Jordan starts to obsessively entertain the idea of adultery six weeks before his wedding. It is not just the “what ifs”—he does show up at the meeting, blindfolded. The main motive of his distress and the whodunit of the unfolding narrative are not really about pursuing his desires but rather the struggle over keeping up appearances. The sloppy, nerve-racking investigation he sets out on is less about finding the faceless woman he met than it is about unmasking the greater scheme behind it. (“You really did this in this climate?”, asks PJ, summoned by an edgy Jordan. “Are you suicidal?”)
Meanwhile, business is crumbling. With the Sony Pictures hack, the Weinstein case, and the 2019 WGA lawsuit as an implicit backdrop, life is tough for a blackmailable talent professional in Hollywood. At Jordan and PJ’s agency, employees are trained with mantras such as DARVO: “Deflect, Attack, Replace, Victim with, Offender.” Internally, staffers nonchalantly admit that “this structure that were in won't be around anymore.” Clients are being told that “No Stream / Cable = $.” One female assistant, who strategically plans a career move to Wall Street, is violently berated in a scene that was written verbatim from one of the many real testimonies gathered by the filmmakers to represent the setting’s toxic culture. “The agency is not the angry bulldogs that Entourage makes us out to be . . . A lot of that film industry aspect has left with Harvey,” says Jordan upon meeting a Chinese businessman (who plays a part in the purple envelope intrigue) eager to save his job's reputation. But for someone who drives around with a secretly leased Tesla, wears whitening teeth strips, and addresses his fiancé as a prospect client, the tireless “let's keep talking” charade gets increasingly harder to pull off.
Cummings’s performance as Jordan is an expanded iteration of the anxiety-inspiring police officer he played in his breakthrough short that later became a feature, Thunder Road, and subsequentially picked up in The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Overcome with facial tics and sporting a Jim Carrey-esque physicality, he leans mostly toward the comic. Self-inflicted interruptions and verbal hiccups frequently disturb his speech, and half-spoken sentences contribute to increase the tension, as secondary and repressed thoughts emerge in his dialogue. Yet this constant, painful balking ultimately draws out the more humane and relatable traits of his character, even more than the catharsis at the end of the film.
Watching The Beta Test generates an ambivalent feeling, in that the film blends the practiced wholesomeness of Cummings’s presence and his rigorous indie approach with a spreading discomfort. The production was entirely financed through a Wefunder campaign, with editing, grading, and special effects finalized in Cummings’s garage during the first wave of the pandemic. But while the flat aesthetic of the digital, “Vimeo-pick” DYI filmmaking suggests a comfort zone that goes hand in hand with the writer-directors’ pleasure in paying homage to horror and sci-fi traditions, the plot’s malicious elements do not reach a resolution. There is no possible happy ending.
In the same way that the black humor of Ruben Östlund’s The Square revealed the contradictions of the contemporary art scene and its hypocritical bourgeoisie, The Beta Test zeroes in on entertainment industry jargon and those who uncritically capitalize on it. But differently from Östlund’s satire, Cummings and McCabe target a more dangerously global and powerful crowd. Silicon Valley is a stone’s throw from Hollywood, as are the ultimate decision-makers governing our world. It is significant that the “purple envelope virus” circulates among the middle and higher ranks of society indistinctively. Jordan is not the only receiver of the anonymous invitation, whose concept also presupposes a match with an equally unaware, suitable partner. But while both the purple envelope scam and Jordan’s actual community operate like systems that economically equate him with wealthier adulterers, they are not equal. “We don’t earn a lot of money—but we act as we do,” says PJ, shortly before Jordan compares himself to Hester Prynne.
The yet-to-be-released Delete History (2020), by the French duo Gustave Kervern and Benoît Delépine, comically explores the burgeoning struggle of the once middle class, placing particular emphasis on its frustration towards “The Internet,” understood as an anonymous and tyrannical structure on which many aspects of our lives depend. As in The Beta Test, the protagonists realize a popular fantasy: the possibility of putting a face to the invisible source of many troubles in order to confront it. Though offering different values and outcomes, both films articulate the anxiety resulting from a state of continuous and potential exploitation, which shows no end in sight.
At the end, Jordan’s deceptive mechanisms originate from the same decadence corroding fundamental corners of our culture, starting with language: there are “no problems, only opportunities.” A sex-based extortion model is a great idea for an app. Women lie or are exhausted to the point of revenge. Men are groped, too, and “nobody is doing anything about it,” because abuse of power affects people everywhere. Everybody is the victim of a patriarchal, homophobic, and capital-driven society. It might sound terrifying or hilarious, depending on the point of view, but The Beta Test sends a plausible message: people are now just scrapeable data.