The Beta Test Blends Satire with Pathos
Released into theaters and video on-demand amidst the third season of Succession, Jim Cummings’s The Beta Test could double as a backdoor pilot spinoff from HBO’s wildly successful black dramedy satire. Sick of the internecine familial warfare, perhaps Roman Roy flees back to Hollywood and meets Jordan – played by The Beta Test writer-director Jim Cummings – a wannabe asshole agent in a Hollywood that has increasingly little use for wannabes, assholes, and agents. That’s as far as my crossover pitch goes, but the similarities don’t end there. Like Succession, The Beta Test is a strikingly vicious but tonally balanced takedown of an industry where the lust for power is matched only by the absolute futility of it all. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the characters; nobody else gives a shit.
If there’s a master of tonal shifts and genre-melds working in movies right now, it’s Cummings. Following up his dramedy, Thunder Road, and his comedy-horror, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Cummings continues his multi-hyphenate role on The Beta Test, where he plays the greedy, groveling Hollywood agent whose life careens toward nothingness after an unexpected invitation to an anonymous sexual encounter. And so, like the triple threat of the man himself, Cummings’ film takes on a triangle of American institutions: infidelity, Hollywood, and the internet.
The Beta Test’s style is its most potent weapon against an industry with an increasingly narrow visual grammar. Cummings combines the antiseptic palette of modern-day streaming with bold camera angles and movements – it effectively plays as if a coder edited the Netflix image-producing algorithm to “be more interesting, more personal” in response to criticism of their uniformity. The Beta Test’s form follows its function in this regard, and its substantive takedown of agents, producers, actors – the whole Movie Industrial Complex, as it were – is simple but effective. In a town with no dearth of overinflated egos, Jordan is just the entrée into a world of characters who live and die by power shifts that nobody else cares about.
As Jordan falls further into a den of illicit relationships and unspoken affairs, The Beta Test over-extends its satirical claws, trying perhaps a bit too hard to thread together its commentary on a company town, relationships, and the digital age. Its third act twists and turns feel thrilling in the moment, though they lead to a bit of head-scratching once the credits roll. Luckily, in a move that echoes his prior work, Cummings relies on his acting ability to create enough pathos that the narrative climax is echoed by an emotional one, and the film reaches its high watermark just before it tumbles off the rails. Despite an ending that doesn't quite work, The Beta Test is ultimately a simple, incisive portrait of power and pity that will hit home with anyone who has spent time in the industry.