Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” opens with a scene that splits the difference between ethereal and anarchic, and over the following two hours this Danish drinking dramedy tasks us with determining what exactly that difference consists of. The primary tool in that endeavor? Shots. Lots and lots and lots of shots, along with some swigs of wine, beer and vodka for good measure.
(For the movie’s characters, to be clear, although you’re welcome to indulge in the safety of your own home once “Another Round” releases on on-demand platforms Friday.)
The resourceful Mads Mikkelsen plays Martin, a bleary-eyed history teacher who’s barely starting to catch up to what his family probably thinks and what his students absolutely think of him: He’s rather dull. Indifferent. Boring. A bit corpse-like at the dinner table and in the classroom, where – in a funny but endearing reversal of convention – Martin’s students would like for him to apply himself, for his sake and for theirs as year-end exams loom.
Three of Martin’s colleagues are in the same boat, effortlessly wading across the endless lake of near-middle-age mediocrity despite the many leaks of motivation that they couldn’t be bothered to plug up. A 40th birthday dinner provides a rare opportunity for them to seek shelter with each other away from the agonizing mundanities of marriage, work, life. There, the casual but not totally candid conversation turns to ostensibly harmless chatter about a certain philosopher’s hypothesis stating that, essentially, humans may be able to navigate day-to-day life with a bit more oomph if their blood alcohol content was constantly humming at a low level; that one would be “more poised, more musical and open, more confident in general.” Can’t argue with that logic, right? We’re all adults here. Martin and his friends chuckle at the conceit along with the audience, but we all know that to test such a hypothesis would be lunacy.
Still. A little more oomph sounds good to Martin. So he goes from soda to downing two glasses of wine in short order, and because Mikkelsen is so poised at slowly revealing vulnerabilities beneath that hardened exterior, we spot a glint in his eye. He opens up about a strained relationship with his wife, and before long the quartet are dancing deliriously outside and...is that a choir we hear accompanying them? Alcohol has done its job as one night’s elixir. But Martin is curious now, and he keeps his self-prescription going by sneaking a bottle of vodka into school the next day. Before long, the group has set up an experiment after all—complete with ostensible controlled conditions and an agreement that each will take note of the effects on their bodies, lives and souls. Bottom’s up!
“Another Round’s” premise seems tailor-made for Judd Apatow-level farce, and though I’d wager the film gets picked up for a Hollywood treatment within five years (as American moviemaking has been wont to do as of late with successful European films), Vinterberg’s filmmaking mirrors that of his characters: He’s practical, almost studious in his approach as we see alcohol become, initially – oh yes, initially – a great equalizer for Martin and his buds, their families and students. Sure, it takes him a few times to blurt out “industrialization,” but his class is just excited about the level of interest he’s suddenly taken in them. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s shaky handheld camerawork makes us feel like we’re wobbling through the proceedings along with our “researchers” (just don’t call them alcoholics), and “Another Round” delivers the goods of situations that we expect to be propelled by dramatic ironies. It’s amusing to see coworkers confused (and a bit suspicious) at how much livelier the quartet is, but tensions of inevitable disaster arise when Tommy, a kid’s soccer coach, refuses a player a sip of the clear liquid in his bottle because, well, it sure isn’t water.
In the picture’s more potent scenes, Vinterberg’s directorial grace and the fluidity of his actors rub together to spark inexplicable moments of catharsis, breakthroughs in which the guys seem to have reached some higher plane of legitimate understanding, complete with otherworldly aftertastes. These scenes are exquisite marriages of form and function, made even more intoxicating by how committed the small ensemble is. Even when “Another Round” occasionally slips into its sincerity, it endures as a construction of gripping emotional depth as Martin and company order round after round of the fulfillment that has eluded them for so long. The more entrenched they get in their experiment, the more Vinterberg and co-screenwriter Tobias Lindholm turn observations about the buzz of alcohol into bittersweet glimpses of four men momentarily recapturing the buzz of life.
As we might expect, the metaphor extends to predictable ultimatums. “I’ve missed you,” Martin’s wife tells him after an evening of passionate lovemaking, and once the words are uttered, he (and we) are forced to ask: What happens when these investigators of inebriation stop? We get reckoning more than revelation out of “Another Round,” and the buzz has got to wear off eventually, though the realities that endless drinking has uncovered may linger in the proverbial hangover. There’s some prolonged stumbling around before we get to that point – both for the film’s narrative and our protagonists – but whatever relaxed pace the movie settles into is followed by a third-act chaser as sudden as it is tragic. What goes around comes around, as anyone who’s ever had one too many can attest to. That won’t stop Mikkelsen from burning his physicality into our eyeballs with one more utterly enigmatic final swig of a sequence in which Martin becomes possessed by the joy of life just when joy has seemingly become an impossibility. He's pretending not to have heard the signal of last call quite yet, and we can’t help but raise a toast to the jubilant final moments when ethereality and anarchy have briefly, blissfully become one.
"Another Round" is not rated. It's available to rent on VOD platforms starting Friday.
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal, Maria Bonnevie
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
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