“What better place to tell the story of a collapsing world of middlemen and liars than Hollywood?” That’s co-director PJ McCabe’s starting, central, and end point with “The Beta Test,” and the more inclined you are to believe in this vision, the more inclined you’ll be to enjoy this movie. More to the point: WGA members will love it, agents will hate it, and everyone else will fall somewhere in between.
McCabe co-wrote, co-directed, and co-stars in the movie with Jim Cummings, who serves as our agitated antihero Jordan. A (more) sociopathic version of Jeremy Piven’s “Entourage” agent Ari Gold, Jordan seem to have chosen his career entirely for the perks it promises.
Unfortunately, things haven’t panned out quite as he’d hoped. Jordan does work for a high-powered agency rather pointedly called A.P.E., has a beautiful and adoring fiancée in Caroline (Virginia Newcomb, “The Death of Dick Long”), and gets to yell at his terrified young assistant Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke, “The Astronaut Wives Club”) all day. The catch is, though, that he’s agenting in the post-Weinstein era. Now every conversation requires so much more energy; he can’t just lie, or bully, or cheat with impunity. He’ll still do it, naturally. But he’s got to pay the price.
And so, just a few weeks before his wedding, Jordan receives a beautifully engraved invitation in the mail: A summons to a no-strings-attached, one-night stand with a stranger. He goes, of course, and barely thinks twice about it. Until the minute he steps out of the hotel room, and realizes all the ways he may have ruined his life. Is it a setup, recorded by his CAA competitors? A blackmail attempt from someone who found him on Instagram? Or even a fantasy come true, and just as quickly lost?
Every option makes him crazier than the last, until he’s visibly falling apart. During the day, he tries to solve the mystery while insisting that everything’s fine to his increasingly concerned colleagues. At night, he tries to plan a wedding while insisting that everything’s fine to his increasingly baffled fiancée. It doesn’t help when Jordan and his colleague PJ (McCabe) notice that a spate of murders around town seem to be related to similar invitations.
The movie is at its best when the filmmakers focus their ire on Hollywood itself — the hypocrisies, the empty promises, the rejections and belittlements that are built right into the system. Jordan’s brief affair, for example, is intercut with a hilariously grim work montage, while his tense repetitions of desperate and meaningless phrases like “Who’s excited?” and “There’s my guy!” build to almost unbearable anxiety. Ben Lovett’s score hits just the right notes of bombast and pathos, while Cummings’ editing creates the tautest levels of stress. He does push his jaw-clenching performance right to the edge, leaving no space for subtlety. But he’s balanced onscreen by McCabe and Newcomb, both of whom bring welcome warmth and humanity to an otherwise suffocating environment.
Cummings and McCabe do seem determined to walk the walk when it comes to their own careers. They’ve brought back the production team from Cummings’ cultishly revered 2018 indie “Thunder Road,” which built legions of fans at global festivals. And they financed the movie via crowd-funding, which gave them the freedom to work with talented unknowns while taking unabashed aim at the Hollywood machine.
In fact, “The Beta Test” would have been stronger if they’d honed their furious focus even further. Instead, it feels like two films mashed together — a shaky thriller built on a vaguely-constructed social-media theme, set inside an incisive and genuinely disturbing industry satire. No sane individual would ever want to work within the system they inhabit onscreen. But as filmmakers, they’ve made a pretty strong case for a viable alternative.
“The Beta Test” opens in US theaters and on demand Nov. 5.