Jordan (Writer/director Jim Cummings) is a Hollywood agent who seemingly has everything. A successful career and a good woman who loves him enough to want to marry him. Unfortunately, he is also a pit of insecurity. He is constantly talking about the deals he is working on (“We just signed Tiger Woods as a director this morning. We’re going to do a Caddyshack remake with dogs.”) and expecting people to be impressed. But underneath all of that is a whiff of desperation, of the need for validation.
When an ornate invitation to an anonymous sexual encounter arrives in the mail, Jordan thinks he may have found,at least temporarily, some of that validation. After all, who wouldn’t want to have sex with a guy as powerful as him, right? But after the encounter, Jordan starts to become increasingly paranoid about who it was who invited him and what might be their motives be? Blackmail? As his paranoia increases, Jordan can only do harm to his career and his engagement while trying to track down the person who sent him the invitation.
As a satire of Hollywood dealmakers, The Beta Test is a little soft. It doesn’t contain quite the bite that something like Swimming With Sharks or Robert Altman’s The Player wield. It is a bit more gentle, along the lines of Christopher Guest’s 1989 film The Big Picture. It finds humor in Jordan’s predicament, but it never feels like it is cutting or making a deeper point or criticism about it.
Instead, the film really excels when it is focusing on Jordan’s paranoia-fueled breakdown. While it may seem like inside baseball to set the film in the spring of 2019 during the lead-up to the members of the Writers Guild of America firing all of their agents in a disagreement over packaging fees. (Agents were essentially negotiating extra payments for themselves by virtue of just doing the job that the writers had already hired and been paying them to do.) It is the topic of meetings at Jordan’s agency and you can hear it being discussed in the hallways. It helps to add an additional layer of uncertainty into his life, further fueling his unease and paranoia.
Like his previous films Thunder Road and The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, writer/director Cummings creates another character for himself to effortlessly inhabit. In collaboration with co-writer PJ McCabe, who also appears in the film as Jordan’s best friend at the agency, Cummings builds the film from the character out, which does make it seem at times as if the plot is something that bends to the needs of the character, rather than a situation the character needs to react to. And since the film is being told from Jordan’s point of view, it doesn’t speak well of Jordan’s regard for his fiancee, who is presented as so underdeveloped a character, we don’t have any idea as to what even her occupation may be.