Jim Cummings and PJ McCabe’s “The Beta Test” is a frantic nervous breakdown of a film-industry satire with a mad soufflé of a plot that starts with a Hollywood murder, climaxes in a nationwide sex conspiracy, and touches on everything from Harvey Weinstein to the WGA’s fight against packaging fees in between. At its heart, however, this endearingly overstuffed indie hinges on a simple observation that has nothing to do with digital growth, belittled assistants, or the Tiger Woods-directed all-dog reboot of “Caddyshack” that’s mentioned in a throwaway line by a talent agent who only speaks in throwaway lines: It’s never been easier to feel like your life isn’t good enough, and yet it’s never been harder to fuck around and find out. Literally. Temptation is only a click away, but you’d basically have to stage the heist from “Ocean’s Eleven” just to cheat on someone without getting caught.
On the one hand, the internet has turned the world into such a relentless battle royale for attention that people have become intractably obsessed with their own relevance. For Jordan — a perma-clenched striver who Cummings embodies as a perfect combination of Ryan Serhant’s energy, Patrick Bateman’s personality, and Ari Gold’s career — it’s impossible to think about anything else. At a time when agents like him are hemorrhaging the power they once had in this town, Jordan is so fixated on performing his own value that it seems to be his full-time job (after all, how many projects can actually get put together by a pull-string doll in a business suit who only knows how to say things like “we’re excited” and “let’s keep talking?”).
He leases the Tesla he pretends to own, buys a $10,000 painting at a charity auction just to impress a client, and says things like “the world is entering this really exciting time of digital international growth and we’re a part of it” without realizing what part of it he actually plays.
Needless to say, Jordan doesn’t have the bandwidth to give even a dial-up shit about his fiancée Caroline (Virginia Newcomb) or the wedding they’re planning “together” — he’s more focused on the blonde sitting at the restaurant table behind her. Is she checking him out? Do other women still want him? “’Til death do us part” is a nice thing to say in front of a crowd, but clout is constantly depreciating in value, and spending it might be the only way for Jordan to keep stock of just how much he really has left.
On the other hand, projecting a hollow image of success and/or sex appeal might have to be its own reward for Jordan at a time when digital footprints, security cameras, and social media (as both an instrument and a culture) have made it more difficult to break the rules. “People are so terrified of stepping out of line they don’t even talk about it anymore,” Jordan declares at one point, another odorless fart of a soundbyte in a movie that eagerly mocks the idea that “bad men” have all been magically neutered by #MeToo.
In a surreal flourish typical of this lo-fi movie’s slapstick Lynchian feel, Jordan and the aforementioned blonde stand up and start grunting at each other like they’re about to have neanderthal sex on the floor of the restaurant, only for the agent’s wet dream to dry into a nightmare when a gaggle of onlookers crowd around to record the scene on their phones.
Which is all to say that Jordan is mighty tempted by the purple-enveloped postcard that shows up in his mailbox one day and offers him a no-strings-attached sexual encounter with a secret admirer in a nearby hotel room (there are checkboxes for things like “dom,” “sub,” “pegging,” and “face-sitting,” which Jordan circles three times). It sounds too good to be true, but the real problem is that it isn’t. The real problem, in fact, is that Jordan and his mystery date remain blindfolded throughout the hottest afternoon of their lives, and he has no way of finding her again once they go their separate ways.
Either he’ll go full “Under the Silver Lake” on figuring out who was behind the encounter, or he’ll spend the rest of his days feeling trapped in the matrimonial happiness that he chose for himself — forever haunted by his brush with something “better.” What happens to a man like Jordan once you take away his ability to lie to himself about who he is and what he wants?
It’s no surprise that “The Beta Test” ultimately considers the existential threat that it poses to its protagonist as an opportunity in disguise. Cummings is a DIY raconteur whose “Thunder Road” turned a profit by circumventing traditional channels of distribution, and most people in the indie film community are probably more familiar with his relentless social media presence than with the movies he seeks to promote through it. The delirious fun of his latest feature — and the secret to how it maintains such an irrepressible thrum of urgency even when it spreads itself far too thin, which is always — is that Cummings has found a roadworthy vehicle for his offscreen obsessions.
After years of tirelessly screaming into the void that “it doesn’t have to be this way!,” the guy has made something that can amplify that message for him. A film that uses sexual infidelity as a Trojan horse for its co-director’s fixation with bucking the system and refusing to let other people determine his value(s). As someone puts it in the very first scene: “Everybody just wants to be famous, but for what? Be happy with what you’ve got.” That character then proceeds to poke a hole in his wife’s jugular vein and make her the first victim of a movie that will soon claim several others, but “The Beta Test” is a messy piece of work in which no one has quite as much control over themselves as they think.
The only exception to that rule might be Cummings himself, whose scattershot approach to his movie’s plot is offset by the surgical discomfort of his performance as Jordan (McCabe is likewise spot-on as Jordan’s best friend and low-key foil PJ). Cummings’ face-based performance recalls the elastic volatility of a young Jim Carrey, specifically the scene in “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” when he’s birthing himself out of an animatronic rhinoceros’ butthole. Every minute of “The Beta Test” finds Jordan stretching the limits of his own skin in a similar way, as if he were trapped inside his own body and struggling to chew his way free.
In a film that barely has a grasp over its own hare-brained conspiracy and often feels like an extension of the mental breakdown that its protagonist might be suffering — a film that shares Jordan’s inability to know if it should be laughing or crying or searching for the seams of reality itself, and may have fared better as a more localized character study than it does a system-wide freak out — Cummings’ performance adds a key measure of consistency. “I just want to be cool and happy and come off like I’m successful but I’m just fucking cheesy!,” Jordan shrieks as he inches closer towards the core of his corrupted persona. “I want it to be the early 2000s again!”
In the end, agents like him are just another dying social network, so pathologically obsessed with their own survival that they forget what they wanted from this life in the first place.
IFC Films will release “The Beta Test” in select theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 5.