Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 17th, 2020
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.
An often entertaining philosophical drunkfest, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s latest film, Another Round, nevertheless wants to have its vodka and drink it, too, leading us down an alcoholic rabbit hole where much is discussed, far less resolved. The cinema of open-ended metaphysics frequently exhilarates, but here the competing thoughts collide in manners that exasperate even as they intoxicate (in more ways than one). Featuring a fully committed lead performance from Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt), which includes a delightful final dance sequence, the movie may not quite hold together, but mostly holds our attention.
Mikkelsen plays Martin, a middle-aged high-school teacher whose best days seems far behind him. Neither his marriage nor his instruction go well, at present, his entire being shrouded in midlife depression. Things are so bad that his students, along with their parents, even call a special meeting to voice their concerns about the end-of-year exams, fearing that his pedagogical approach, such as it is, serves them poorly. But then, out with three other teacher friends for the birthday party of one of them, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang, The Commune), he decides not abstain from drinking alcohol, for once, and his emotions pour out.
Martin’s confession of misery done, the real imbibing begins, and before long Nikolaj is quoting Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud on the supposed benefits of daily, consistent intake. Keep your blood alcohol level at .05% every day, starting in the morning, stop drinking by 8pm (and never on weekends), and you will be happy. What does Martin have to lose? Soon he, Nikolaj, Peter (Lars Ranthe, also The Commune) and Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen, also The Hunt) go all in for this questionable (and possibly dangerous) experiment. And wouldn’t you know it? It works! Everything gets better. Until it doesn’t.
Vinterberg contextualizes his protagonists’ behavior within the larger Danish culture of heavy consumption, opening the film with an apparently annual student (as in, high-school student) race around a local lake, where participants must carry a case of beer as a team, drink as they go, and try not to vomit as they do. When we later cut to a staff meeting where the principal expresses concern about this tradition, we can only marvel that this event exists at all, for it’s not as if early exposure to alcohol seems to lessen the amount that adults drink, as we see. And as Anika (Maria Bonnevie, Becoming Astrid), Martin’s long-suffering wife, observes, once Martin spirals out of control, “The whole country drinks like maniacs, anyway.”
She is, at first, pleasantly surprised by the change in her husband. After all, there’s no question that he lacks joie de vivre when we initially see him. It’s too bad that his chosen method of recovery has such dire consequences. And indeed, the film offers an excellent exploration of the costs of self-medication, and the way in which addiction corrodes even the best of intentions. The narrative problems lie in the growing dramatic confusion, by the end, of cause and effect. Perhaps if Vinterberg avoided recrimination and negative outcomes, he would better shine a light, through comedy (of which there is plenty), and without commentary, on the problem. Instead, he goes back and forth, showing the positives of drinking along with the dangers, but without truly condemning excess. As long as it’s fun, why stop?
Which brings us to that admittedly fabulous final scene, Mikkelsen (a former dancer) shaking and strutting his stuff (complete with an ending freeze-frame launch into the harbor). It is moments like these, that perfectly encapsulate the exuberance that still exists in those who had long given up, where we enjoy what Another Round could be. Vinterberg should have embraced this joy, letting the moral lessons accumulate through satirical observation. Having it both ways doesn’t quite work. But at least we get our boogie on.