Wednesday 10 November 2021

On demand: "The Beta Test"

The writer-director-performer Jim Cummings has set out his stall as a specialist in the depiction of problematic men. In his 2018 breakthrough 
Thunder Road, Cummings threw body and soul into the role of Officer Jimmy Arnaud, a cop on the verge of a nervous breakdown, leaving us to consider whether having powderkegs in positions of power is ever an entirely sound idea. His follow-up vehicle The Beta Test, which Cummings has co-written and directed with P.J. McCabe, is immediately recognisable as a post-#MeToo proposition, and a product of an industry that's had to have a rapid rethink of long-held assumptions - even, gulp, get honest about who it is and what it's done. The film opens with the brutal, bloody murder of a young woman, and stuffed into its pockets are some of the stories (outrages, really) people in the film business have spent decades quietly gossiping about. Its main event, however, is watching Cummings' Jordan Hines, an affianced executive at an L.A. talent agency, screw up his life upon RSVP-ing to an invite from a VIP club that claims to set its members up with no-strings sexual encounters. The film's subject, then, isn't abuses of power so much as male anxiety in our brave new world. Even before the hook-up, we learn Jordan has been suffering with an ulcer ("an open sore on my insides"), which can't diminish any once he realises this extracurricular dalliance is being used as Kompromat 101, and the woman around him start snarling in his direction. Early on, a business meeting at the agency's offices is interrupted when the building's earthquake detection system is accidentally triggered. "It's a false alarm," Jordan reassures his clients. "It's OK." But the tectonic plates beneath his feet, and indeed the feet of men everywhere, are shifting. Nobody's quite as sure of themselves as perhaps they once were.

Male psychic turbulence is as naught compared to actual female suffering, of course, and while Cummings and McCabe take care to place an example of the latter upfront, I suspect some viewers will likely be unsettled, if not taken aback, by the larky tone The Beta Test subsequently strikes - the very opposite of Ronan Farrow's sincerity, or the starkly appalled tenor of Kitty Green's The Assistant, the movies' first (and thus far strongest) response to l'affaire Weinstein. Yet Cummings and McCabe are diagnostic in their own way: what they're getting at here is why these men (or, if you prefer, just: men) do what they do. Jordan is a unique combination of supreme self-confidence (a belief he belongs anywhere, and has the right to comport himself as he likes) and extreme insecurity with regard to his own status. There are no half-measures with apex predators; either everything goes their way, or everybody's out to get them. As Jordan flails upon being caught with pants well and truly down, "I just feel I have a huge finger hanging over me all the time". As that Pythonesque image indicates, this leaves him open to considerable satiric exploitation, and as a character, Jordan proves all the funnier for having zero discernible sense of humour whatsoever. (His closest cinematic sibling would be Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron's film of American Psycho.) Here is a man who registers no absurdity while signing Tiger Woods to direct a reboot of Caddyshack "with dogs" - and here you detect Cummings and McCabe diagnosing why it is our bigger American movies now display little-to-no trace of wit. It's because men like Jordan Hines have been calling the shots.

Once you've felt your way into the protagonist's nightmare, the question becomes what else there is here beyond Cummings' ever-committed character work. In Thunder Road, there arguably wasn't quite as much as there needed to be, but the actor was so dynamite to watch that you didn't really mind. The Beta Test is busier from the off, and it eventually warps into a wonky sort of PI movie, dispatching Jordan and his vape pen out onto the mean streets of Hollywood to figure out who might have the dirt on him - and looking on, amused, as he inevitably digs an even deeper hole for himself. This transition is marked by the economy of the best indies: serving as his own editor, Cummings fashions punchy montages of bruising, dubious experience that either drive his point home or push the plot along. Yet there are equally stretches where the film begins to feel a little too scattered for its own good. That early murder is the first of three fatal domestic bust-ups we cut away to, yet they're only tangentially linked to Jordan's plight, and I'm not sure Cummings and McCabe ever quite nail the exact right ratio of character study to plot. Our boy's sorely mishandled quest - a post-Weinstein Chinatown, in which a shamed shamus sets out as much to cover his behind as to uncover any truth - is a wickedly good story idea, but there's not enough of it, or we're too late getting there, hence the film's slightly gabbled resolution. It's often funny, though, not least when you realise all the trouble Jordan thinks he's in would likely blow over if he could just sit still and do nothing. But he's panicked and scrambling, in a town where image management has never been more paramount. Flawed in some respects, The Beta Test does succeed in catching a mood and a moment, and I suspect Jordan Hines will endure as representative of a recognisable early 21st century capitalist type: one who regards the changing world as chaos - a mortal threat, even - because he's incapable of loosening his grip, let alone going with the flow.

The Beta Test is now available to stream via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

No comments:

Post a Comment