‘Relaxer’ Review — A Grotesque But Captivating Endurance Contest

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Relaxer Review

The late ‘90s were a weird time. The internet wasn’t quite as ubiquitous as it is today, so it had played a role in reshaping lives around the world but not quite to extent to which it has today. Then there was also the looming threat that a coding error – a shortening of the year to two digits as opposed to four – would lead to a cataclysmic event that would render all of Earth’s growing technology absolutely useless, plunging us into a dark ages of our own making. The uncertainty created by the fear of Y2K serves as the backdrop for writer-director Joel Potrykus’ wildly unusual movie Relaxer. Though the threat of a technological meltdown serves as the backdrop for this unconventional film, the setting for Relaxer never changes as it follows one lowly soul’s attempts at surviving a bizarre challenge. There are many aspects of Relaxer that would make you think that this movie just couldn’t possibly work, and yet the film does as it so aggressively uncompromising and utterly grotesque at times but still oddly endearing.

Sitting shirtless on a couch in a run down room is Abbie (Joshua Burge) playing video games and drinking milk out of a baby bottle. Abbie is being egged on by his older brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) as part of a series of challenges. Then Cam decides to raise the stakes of the challenge – Abbie must never leave the couch until he reaches the practically unbeatable level 256 of Pac-Man with the reward being a cash prize of $100,000, though the reality is that there is no prize. The younger brother accepts this challenge which takes every ounce of his willpower to complete as he’s reliant on friends and delivery services to provide him with food and water. In this challenge Abbie will push himself to unthinkable extremes while the film pushes the limits of what the audience might be able to stomach.

At first, Relaxer seems like an absurdist little comedy, one where Abbie will attempt to all sorts of crazy things to earn a victory over his brother. Then it escalates and it keeps getting weirder and weirder. Stationary, Abbie continues to play the game as he’s visited by rotating roster of colorful characters such as his hyped up friend Dallas (Andre Hylan), a janitor named Jim (Mahfuz Rahman), and an acquaintance in Arin (Adina Howard). Being in the company of fellow humans doesn’t do much to get Abbie to change his ways in the slightest, though through their visits we learn information about him and his home life, including the fate of his father – a harsh reality that Abbie just refuses to face.

What’s so amazing about Relaxer is that you start to think that there’s a breaking point for Abbie, that something will make him snap out of this self-imposed funk. But it never happens. Then Joel Potrykus escalates the insanity of the film, and it takes a hard turn into some insanely grotesque moments. Each cringeworthy moment of degradation that Abbie subjects himself to only furthers the demented determination of the character. This shouldn’t be funny. This shouldn’t be watchable. And yet it all is.

The press notes for Relaxer succinctly states that the film is Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel by way of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, and it’s kind of shocking just how accurate that statement really is. Relaxer alternates between a kind of surrealism that leaves its characters trapped but also a kind of goofy realism that reflects the world – as it was in the ‘90s and kind of how it is today. Joel Potrykus has created a film that is bizarre, grotesque, and defiant but maintains a pace that keeps the unusual events always oddly hilarious and captivating.

Relaxer
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

An usual, grotesque film from writer-director Joel Potrykus, Relaxer places its lead character on a bizarre endurance test to beat the 256th level of Pac-Man before the events of Y2K and dares the audience to look away as it pushes the limits of reason to hilarious and unexpected results.

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