Nostalgia-baiting is something I’m not too familiar with. I’m not fond of superheroes, and I wasn’t alive in the 80’s, so I figured myself to be pretty well nostalgia-proof when it comes to the film industry. I can’t be manipulated. I can’t be toyed with. I can’t sit down in front of a screen and be struck dumb as I see my own childhood unspool before my very eyes. I’m impervious.
This is something that I thought right up until the point where I saw a dude puke milk for like thirty solid seconds straight.
Director: Joel Potrykus
Release: March 22, 2019 (Limited)
However you cut it, the blurry space where the 90’s meets the early 00’s was a water balloon of gross exploding against a brick wall and then dribbling onto someone’s unsuspecting dog. The cartoons were gross and weird. MTV was gross and weird. Freaked came out. The internet was snaking through every American household and sputtering these gutter sites where we could finally see all the horrible things we didn’t think we were allowed to see. The first time I saw Mr. Hands was in a science class where the girl beside me nudged me in the side and said, “Hey, check this out,” and then she turned her monitor to me, and I saw something that I won’t transcribe here, because my editor gets mad about Google burying articles. When the video had finished she giggled and said, “That’s pretty funny, right?” We’re married now.
I’m also married to Relaxer, now, a movie the encapsulates the grimy weirdness of the late-90’s so perfectly it just about defies explanation. I’ll explain, anyway: A young man stunted into a sort of permanent childhood has an asshole older brother, Cam (David Dastmalchian), who forces him to enact strange and grueling challenges while recording them on a camcorder duct taped to a tripod. We enter on the younger brother, Abbie (Joshua Burge), trying to complete a sort of gallon challenge by drinking milk from baby bottles at predesignated times. He’s not allowed to get off the couch, so he’s playing Tony Hawk on his N64. He’s scrawny, shirtless, and bathed in sweat, so there’s already this flypaper stickiness to the entire scene. It only gets worse when Abbie misinterprets the rules while his brother is out of the room, and he uses the gallon to relieve himself. He thought he only had to finish what was left in his baby bottle, but it turns out he still has to finish the gallon. Then comes the moment where he drinks a little bit of his pee-milk and pukes all over himself. He still can’t get off the leather couch, though, so he stews in it. This is not the grossest part of this movie, thank god. I wouldn’t spoil that for you. I’m a good guy.
What’s beautiful about this scene (beyond the barf) is its patience. It’s in no hurry to hit any plot points or speed through exposition. These two brothers are in a room together, going about their daily weirdness, having their usual conversations through which we glean their backstory and relationship and the dysfunction that leaves Abbie in his arrested development. Burge plays the doe-eyed deadbeat in a pitiable and sympathetic manner while Dastmalchian is as much the asshole big brother as you’d expect. Most of this stripped-down single-setting film is told through extended scenes like this, and they ground each moment while giving characters ample opportunities to spout out 90’s references in a smooth manner. These long takes add life and personality to the gross, poor white boys who inhabit the movie. You feel like you’re hanging out with them, chillaxing in the squalor.
The challenge Relaxer focuses on is Billy Mitchell’s Pac-Man challenge in which a person has to complete level 256 to win a $100,000 reward (which was real and was apparently being offered by a hot sauce company). Cam gives Abbie until New Year’s Eve on Y2K to complete the challenge while also not being able to leave the couch. So ensues Abbie’s months-long struggle to stay on the couch and complete what seems like an impossible task. He’s spent his whole life failing though, and this is where he needs to succeed. So we spend months watching him unravel and devise ways to survive while just chilling on a couch he can’t escape (and eventually fuses to). He’s visited by friends and apartment complex employees. The dialogue is often sharp, funny, and well-delivered, and there are intriguing strands of the supernatural that culminate beautifully at Relaxer‘s end. It’s a wild film.
The soundtrack is also a standout, mixing chiptune beeps and boops with opera, and the shots themselves are surprisingly evocative despite the incredible restriction of a setting that whittles the Earth down to what is essentially a man on a couch. A New Year’s Eve celebration just outside the apartment blasts blooms of light and color through the window as Abbie falls deep inside of the game, explosions and those ear-worm Pac-Man sounds melding as the music swells as neon floods the screen. Abbie uses a pair of old red-and-white 3D glasses as a sort of coping mechanism, so there’s this shot of Abbie emaciated, dusty, and bearded as a caveman standing in his 3D glasses that has a striking power and gives the impression that anything is possible at that moment. Joel Potrykus makes the most of his setting and proves that a limit in scope doesn’t have to be a limit in ability. As far as films confined to a single point are concerned, Relaxer leaps above the rest, as I never tired of seeing this dude on his couch for even a second--a super rare feat. The crap, cockroaches, and dead animals did help, though.
For some people, the 90’s means Batman: The Animated Series and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. For others, it means South Park and the worst stuff you could find on the internet. Relaxer dives headlong into that latter category to spewing effect. It’s not for the weak-of-stomach, nor for the strong-of-taste. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the gross-out humor of the 90’s with enough art (but not too much) to elevate it above the sum of its squirts. It’s also shockingly powerful nostalgia bait for children of that era who still find a thrill in testing their gag reflexes.