Great cinema is sometimes grand themes, dramatic camerawork, and sophisticated montage; or, it’s a guy playing “Pac Man” for 90 minutes. Joel Potrykus’ “Relaxer,” the latest wacky gambit from the Michigan-based provocateur, finds the “Buzzard” director reteaming with his perennial star Joshua Burge, again taking a cartoonish lowbrow approach to acerbic social critique. Set on the eve of Y2K, “Relaxer” exclusively takes place in the confines of a living room, where Burge’s character endures prolonged attempts to reach an impossible high score on the the aforementioned video game, while enduring hardships that include milk vomit, fecal matter, overheated cartridges, and rat poison. It’s a grotesque downward spiral, both hilarious and mesmerizing, but above all elevated by its insights into the depraved final gasp of the analog age.
Media scholar Neil Postman diagnosed the ills of entertainment media in his aptly titled 1985 tome “Amusing Ourselves to Death;” that diagnosis could serve as an alternate title to the plight of Potrykus’ stationary protagonist. Abbi (Burge) already has his eyes glued to the screen in the movie’s opening minutes, blasting opera music as he frantically speeds through another game level, while his stern older brother (a typically intense David Dastmalchian) videotapes the whole thing. A timer goes off and Abbi chugs a gallon of milk; it doesn’t go well. As Abbi’s brother barks orders to his focused sibling, “Relaxer” sets the stage for its outrageous premise — a living room showdown between a man and his television set, while outside the apocalypse is nigh.
It turns out he’s enmeshed in one of the innumerable challenges that his brother sends his way, dangling the possibilities of superficial awards at the end of the tunnel. The latest challenge, culled from an issue of PC World, finds Abbi fighting to reach a sacred level of “Pac Man” in the hopes of scoring a $100,000 cash prize, which he hopes to use to buy a boat (or maybe visit his incarcerated father; Abbi’s life goals swing wildly as his world holds still). Eventually, his brother leaves, and a series of other visitors come and go: a rambunctious pal (Andre Hyland) who drones on about popular culture, exterminators, and passing acquaintances. Abbi’s resources dwindle, which only strengthens his resolve, and his grip on reality — never too clear in the first place — becomes increasingly suspect. Months pass. The end of the year looms. Maybe the end of the world, too.
Burge, whose lanky features and saucer-shaped eyes recall Buster Keaton, is a perfect vessel for Abbi’s outrageous conundrum. He’s a prisoner of pixelated walls, the eight-bit audio droning on in the background with hypnotic specificity, and “Relaxer” finds its groove as both slapstick and a masterful surrealist media satire. Press notes describe the movie’s concept as “Slacker” by way of “The Exterminating Angel,” but it feels more like the Farrelly brothers’ version of “Castaway” on the couch for a video game generation. Potrykus’ three previous features (“Ape,” “Buzzard,” and “The Alchemist Cookbook)” fixated on young men whose obsessions with beating the system dictate their lives. “Relaxer” boils this formula down to a shrewd, minimalist premise.
Abbi’s universe is defined by the detritus of ’90s nostalgia swirling around him, from 3D glasses that may or may not afford him telekinetic powers to stacks of videocassette tapes documenting his inane exploits. His old pal rambles on in the background, tapes jugs of sodas to his hands, and issues a surprisingly profound assessment of “Jerry Maguire.” Abbi grows desperate for an end to his conundrum, but his brother issues an oppressive decree that he meet a mounting deadline. “There’s ain’t no Nintendo in the Y2K,” he says with ominous certainty.
Other people cycle in and out of Abbi’s space, all imploring him to get up and move on. He’s stuck in a loop, trapped between weightier personal problems and the moment-to-moment absurdity of his survival narrative (will he or won’t he grab hold of that styrofoam cup?). As a funky Neon Indian score comes and goes, Potrykus mostly keeps the camera rooted at Abbi’s eye level, as if he’s been relegated to a waist-high prison cell.
“Relaxer” forces viewers to engage with its off-kilter frequency, and risks pushing the material too far with a final time jump. It has a few cartoonish twists that seem inevitable by the time they arrive, but that’s only because the movie casts such an enveloping spell that it forces viewers into the confines of its twisted logic. Potrykus’ movies are fixated on the self-destruction inherent to all capitalist systems, and there may be no better avatar for this concern than a brain-dead dude playing video games until the end of time. The confrontational finale completes the movie’s snarky outlook on the ’90s as a swirling tornado of superficial concerns rebooted by the new millennium. The 21st century? That’s somebody else’s problem.
“Relaxer” premiered in the Visions section of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Oscilloscope Laboratories will release it later this year.