It’s not often that two strikingly original works seem to have been cut from the same puke-drenched cloth, but that’s exactly the case with Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, published last year to critical acclaim, and Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer, which premiered last year around the same time at SXSW and is now playing at Cinema Village East. The film has been called “the grossest movie of the year” while the novel will have you “cringing during every moment,” per The Paris Review. Clearly, despite their titles, relaxation isn’t exactly their intended purpose.
Both of these dark comedies are set in the apocalyptic recent past; Relaxer builds up to the anticipated Y2K meltdown while My Year of Rest and Relaxation trudges its way toward 9/11, a year later. But don’t expect sweeping sociology; instead, the works focus on characters who are almost completely disconnected from reality, having built their own bunkers in which they can wallow in their ugly, naval-gazing neuroses.
The protagonist of Moshfegh’s novel is an unnamed Upper East Sider who has all but become a shut-in after the death of her parents, venturing into the outside world only to buy coffee from “the Egyptians” at her corner bodega and to obtain a laundry list of medication from her laughably enabling and incompetent therapist. In a manner reminiscent of the shallow brand-name-checking in American Psycho, she rattles off the names of her pills (“Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, Silencior, Seconol, Nembutal, Valium, Librium, Placydil, Noctec, Miltown”) along with the names of the TV shows she vegetates in front of (“Friends, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The West Wing, Will & Grace”). She can’t stand her only friend, Reva, who hasn’t learned to abandon vapid yuppiedom and is still interested in designer clothes, celebrity gossip, weight loss, and self-help books like How to Attract the Man of Your Dreams Using Self-hypnosis.
It’s tempting to call Potrykus’s protagonist a male counterpart to Moshfegh’s, though Moshfegh has been known to show that female characters can be just as repulsive. Still, while Moshfegh’s heroine describes herself as a “spoiled WASP” with an “amazing wardrobe” who faces what can only be called Sex and the City problems (“being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else”), Potrykus’s shut-in, Abner, is the polar opposite of an uptown girl– even if he does go by Abbie. He too is glued to the TV, though his sickly pallor and hollowed-out eyes aren’t the result of an obsession with Whoopi Goldberg movies; instead he obsessively plays video games in his roach-infested apartment. His only social activity seems to be the sadistic “challenges” that his punk-poseur brother foists on him. When we first meet him, he’s attempting to drink a gallon of spoiled milk; the results are what you’d expect if you’ve ever watched an LA Beast video.
Then comes the challenge that propels the movie’s plot and turns Abbie into a true shut-in: In attempt to win $100,000, he agrees not to leave the couch—and even glues himself to it— until he has beaten the mythical Level 256 of Pac-Man. All of this while being filmed by his brother, who presumably plans to use the footage to achieve Jackass-style fame. Moshfegh’s protagonist takes on a similar challenge—she plans to lock herself in and solve all her problems by sleeping through an entire year, waking up only to eat and drink. She too is exploitatively filmed around-the-clock, by a shock artist, Ping Xi, who built his fame on “cum paintings” and taxidermied dogs.
While they stare at their screens, both of these characters are haunted by absent parents. Abbie dreams of reuniting with his father, who is imprisoned for reasons he either refuses to accept or is too dimwitted to understand. Moshfegh’s protagonist remembers her parents as joyless; her father was a distant academic and her mother was an alcoholic who favored “piss-colored Chardonnay on ice.”
Throughout their ordeals, both characters are visited by friends who seem more like frienemies. Moshfegh’s protagonist is forced to endure her neighbor Reva’s nagging jealousy, passive aggression, and inane banter. Meanwhile, Abbie asks his Faygo-chugging, goateed bro-dog to bring over some desperately needed food and drink only to watch him slurp it all down himself while he riffs on Carmen Electra, Pamela Anderson, and Jerry Maguire (both of these works are loaded with delightful ’90s references, and you’ll find The Simpsons mentioned in each). Abbie finally loses it on him and reaps revenge with the help of some 3D glasses that give him telekinetic abilities.
Yes, that’s right: Abbie, outwardly pathetic though he may be, is blessed with superpowers. And so, here’s something else these works have in common: magical realism. The protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no ordinary depressive. With the help of a particularly pernicious medication by the name of Infermiterol, she finds herself engaging in increasingly elaborate sleepwalking episodes, even unwittingly attending a party at a Hester Street club called Portnoy’s Porthole (while that name is clearly fictional, anyone who partied in Manhattan circa 2001 will enjoy the mention of actual clubs like Centro-Fly, Luke + Leroy, Lotus, and Spa). Just as Abbie the dim-witted pushover dons his 3D glasses to become an assertive alpha male, Moshfegh’s joyless protagonist transforms into a Holly Golightly every time she drifts into sleep. Here again, My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes after American Psycho: as with Patrick Bateman’s killings, it’s unclear whether these episodes actually occurred or whether they’re a figment of the troubled narrator’s imagination.
Without giving too much away, both Moshfegh’s and Potrykus’s twisted works end in ways that are catastrophic for the world at large but seemingly happy for their characters, though that happiness is rendered ambiguous by the fact that their mental states can’t be trusted.
Which should you take in first? Probably Relaxer, since it’ll only be at Village East Cinema through Thursday. After that, why not pop some Infermiterol and read My Year of Rest and Relaxation in your sleep.