Can a movie smell?
I realize that may sound like a silly question, unless you’re in some theme park style “4D” experience or you were seeing the advent of Smell-O-Vision with Scent of Mystery back in the 60s. But seriously. Is it possible for a movie to smell bad? Because Relaxer stinks. And I don’t mean it pejoratively. The stench oozes from the sweaty pores of the man-child protagonist. It wafts from the mix of souring milk mixed with urine. It’s probably the stinkiest and grossest movie I’ve seen recently, outside of maybe Are We Not Cats, and yet there’s no singular scene or image that did it. Instead it’s just the entire aura the film gives off. A sweaty, adolescent smell that just permeates everything.
It’s downright apocalyptic.
Relaxer begins with some of the most dramatic music I’ve heard as a blocky video game character (Tony Hawk, I believe) spirals around, stuck in the wall. As the camera pans from the CRT TV along a heavily graffitied wall, we see juvenile jokes stenciled onto the wall. My favorite? A tombstone that says RIP, with a comic voice bubble adding “a fart” to it. The dramatic music (“The Crusaders in Pskov” from Alexander Nevsky, if I’m not mistaken) swells as we take in this desolate apartment before settling on Abbie (Joshua Burge).
Abbie’s clad only in boxers and sweat, as he plays N64 and sips milk from a baby bottle with a straw poked unceremoniously through it. He gulps the milk quickly before his brother Cam (Avid Dastmalchian) comes into view and tops the bottle with more milk from a mostly empty gallon jug. He’s in the middle of another of Cam’s abusive challenges that he can’t ever seem to beat. Cam berates him, coaxes him and downright abuses him. They are the epitome of man-children, thought total opposites.
Relaxer is set in 1999 and if it were today, we’d call Cam’s behavior toxic. He’s paranoid about Y2K. He’s an abusive dick, who sets disgusting and dehumanizing “challenges” for Abbie to complete. And Abbie does them, partly because he’s probably been conditioned to and partly because he seems to want Cam’s respect. Abbie refuses to leave the couch (another challenge) and he ends up graphically vomiting up the milk. It only gets worse from here.
After seeing an article in a Nintendo Power, Cam tells his brother, “One more challenge.” And Abbie, beaten down, says he’s quit quitting, after quitting so many times. The challenge? To beat level 256 of Pac-Man. Which is, of course, impossible, due to an infamous glitch. Pac-Man is emblematic of Abbie’s life; an endless, repeating cycle. Stuck and unable to continue onward.
Their father is currently imprisoned for some kind of sexual offense. Abbie wants to live with him. What follows is a weird, gross-out comedy that’s structured like a play. As the movie progresses and the world outside of this apartment continues, Abbie’s unhygienic body starts to deteriorate in time with the apartment. His lips chap. He’s covered in sweat and pimples. His eyes seem to sink into his skull. And the apartment follows suit. The absurd lengths Abbie goes through to remain on his couch as days turn into weeks and months would be impressive if it weren’t so disgusting, self-defeatist and sad. It gets to the point that I wanted to shout, “get the fuck up, dude!”
Oh, and he might be manifesting telekinetic powers.
Writer/Director Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer evokes the 90s nostalgia of VHS tapes, blocky N64 graphics, Y2K paranoia and the petite goatee and short white man style dreads favored by Nu Metal fans. It references stoner/slacker comedies of the 90s and early 2000s; from Kevin Smith’s indie roots to Slackers. It’s a slow burn comedy. The humor comes from the rambling and circuitous dialogue, ridiculous contraptions Abbie creates to get necessities, sight gags and scatalogical jokes and gags. It’s a slacker movie taken to the absolute extreme. Idle Hands, if Devon Sawa never left his couch. It’s also pretty horrific.
While we’re focused entirely on Abbie, a stable of revolving friends enter and alternately enable him, torture him and pity him. But none of them seriously seem interested in helping. One friend gives him a secret move to pass through the ghosts in Pac-Man. Another belittles him, before opening a window and leaving him some Faygo. Even the fumigators lift the couch and leave him with a face mask after they’ve bug-bombed the place.
Abbie’s inability to continue on with life is the most depressing part. He wants everything to go back to the way things were. Back when his father wasn’t in jail. When his family was together. Maybe to when he and his brother were on better terms. You get the sense that life has kicked Abbie in the ass and he has reverted to this ideation of childhood.
The last thirty minutes of Relaxer goes into some of the most epically banal apocalyptic absurdism I’ve ever experienced. And the last scene is utter, skin-ripping perfection. Trust me when I say that a lot of people are going to be either bored, disgusted or frustrated with Relaxer. But man is it my kind of jam. I do have one question, though. Where does he shit?
Maybe don’t answer that.