2018 AFI FILM FESTIVAL: How far will someone go for a bet? “Relaxer” pushes all bounds of taste as it hurls its protagonist into the most mindless challenge possible. The set-up, can our protagonist beat a video game? In order to win, both the protagonist and the audience are subjected to nausea, claustrophobia, toxic masculinity and scatological humor all in the name of an empty bet. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant experience that, at best, is somewhat humorous as a sketch. At worst, it’s an endless trudge through the undeveloped mind of toxic, irresponsible man-children.
Abbie (Joshua Burge) never appears to move from one place on his couch. The sad loner constantly performs demeaning challenges for his aggressive and taunting brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian). Cam constantly teases Abbie for never finishing the challenge, which includes things like drinking obscene amounts of milk. As Y2K looms over the brothers, Cam throws down a seemingly impossible challenge for Abbie. He’ll have to beat the famed impossible level 256 of “Pac-Man” before Y2K shuts down the machines. He can’t move from his seat and will have to play constantly, day and night. Abbie accepts the challenge and watches as the days and months pass by him as he subjects himself to unspeakable depravity all in the sake of not quitting this challenge.
“Relaxer” pushes Abbie to the edge with a challenge that’s for no one and means nothing. Our first sequence establishes this abusive relationship between Abbie and his brother, Cam. Abbie picks up every challenge Cam throws at him, regardless of how impossible or disgusting it is. However, we never understand why Abbie does this. As the movie builds to a confrontation between brothers, it’s unclear why Abbie acts so deferential to Cam’s requests. The film hinges on Abbie doing whatever it takes to complete this challenge and beat Pac-Man level 256. But he’s alone in this gross apartment. What’s keeping him on this goal? The movie fails to convey the stakes of said challenge. Instead, it seems more content to laugh at a loser who would waste a year or so on a video game challenge.
However, Abbie does more than just waste a year or so. He subjects himself to sickening tribulations involving every bodily fluid known to man. The movie ups the gross-out ante with every scene. But to what end? There’s an active disdain for everyone on the screen that means to come off funny. However, where’s the fun at laughing at an entire world populated by pissing contests. One section involves Dallas (Andre Hyland), Abbie’s friend, visiting him to provide him with a potentially helpful Pac-Man tape. However, Dallas instead walks in, continuously insults Abbie, makes a mess of the place and tapes two 2-liter jugs of soda to his hand to challenge himself to a drinking contest. The movie has fun mocking all of this behavior, but never considers whether it’s not fun to watch in the beginning.
From a filmmaking level, the production design and cinematography manages to you feel, smell and even almost taste the rankness of this single room apartment we spend the entire film in. It’s effective in eliciting discomfort. This seems to be writer/director Joel Potrykus’ intention. However, Potrykus struggles to make the piece flow in an entertaining sort of way. Every scene ups the gross-out level, but doesn’t move Abbie further along on any emotional journey. The 97 minute run time feels interminable. Much like Abbie, we are never getting out of this apartment.
Set amidst the coming of Y2K, the film wants to talk about the end of the analog age. Yet, maybe it doesn’t really at all. Abbie sits in solitude trying to beat the unbeatable level of “Pac-Man” because Y2K will lead to a hard reset of all computer systems. However, the film pins Y2K on a superpower delusion of sorts that Abbie develops and harnesses. Its ideas about the self-destruction present in video game competitions come off almost rote and didactic. Our current world features a thriving e-sports vertical where people make a more than comfortable living only playing video games. People will stream themselves doing these sorts of challenges on Twitch for a rabid audience. As fun as it is to see these old video games and hear Y2K predictions, what is the movie really doing with this setting? Is it merely just window-dressing?