Joel Potrykus’ The Alchemist Cookbook was a strangely captivating trip of a movie, with a truly unique cinematic voice and storytelling sensibility. Hence, his follow-up, Relaxer, was a must-see at this year's Fantasia. Potrykus doesn’t disappoint with his new film, a one-room affair about a slacker forced to stay on his couch (with no breaks) until he beats an impossible Pac-Man record. Relaxer is, for fans of weird cinema, the shit.
The setup of Relaxer makes little sense, which makes it all the better. Pitiful protagonist Abbie lives in a slovenly apartment, repeatedly challenged by his brother Cam (Ant-Man’s David Dastmalchian) to do escalatingly demeaning and impossible tasks in order to be allowed to remain living there. Any normal person would tell Cam to go fuck himself - but Abbie is not a normal person, and Relaxer is not a normal movie.
Relaxer’s premise is, somehow, both exactly what the movie’s about, and utterly unrepresentative of what kind of experience it is. The early sibling bickering between Abbie and Cam is entertaining, but it's when Cam sets his latest challenge, then leaves Abbie alone, that things really kick into gear. As Abbie remains rooted to the couch, playing Pac-Man with increasing desperation, the film turns into a kind of survival drama, filtered through gross-out slacker comedy. It's an enchantingly strange commitment to a bit, seeing a silly concept through to a mind-bending, apocalyptic conclusion.
Much of Relaxer’s charm comes courtesy of Joshua Burge, who as the scrawny, shirtless Abbie exudes a wide-eyed, forlorn plaintiveness, whether in conversation or in his significant screen time spent alone. Burge makes his total physical inertia captivating, soldiering on as he gets coated in milk, vomit, soda, and all manner of fluids in his ever-lengthening, ever-static quest. Numerous scenes play out in long, languid takes, in which the actors’ rhythms alone dictate the pace, and Burge holds our attention extraordinarily well. But that doesn't mean Potrykus doesn't direct with precision.
Relaxer’s screenplay and direction make much out of the little things. Slacker movies are known for that, of course, and debates over the minutiae of late-’90s pop culture (the film opens towards the end of 1999) are present and accounted for. But the apartment’s increasingly grimy art direction is cinematic as hell, its squalor becoming almost a statement in itself. The film’s setpieces - yes, a movie about a guy sitting on a couch has setpieces - revolve around simple tasks Abbie commits himself to achieving without getting up. An agonising sequence involving two bottles of Faygo is a highlight, and as Abbie starts to dehydrate, the desperation is real - and hilarious.
Abbie’s journey from pitiful slacker to...what he eventually becomes is full of surprises, not least of which is how much we end up rooting for him. Despite having nothing preventing him from getting up other than his brother's command, the fact that he remains seated is almost rebellious. Fuck hunger, fuck thirst, fuck disease and cold and basic hygiene - the challenge is all. Abbie owns his inactivity, makes it his raison d’etre. For certain portions of the population, Relaxer could almost be inspirational. For everyone else, it's just fucking funny.