Int’l Critics Line: Todd McCarthy On Denmark’s ‘Another Round’

At the center of Thomas Vinterberg’s new film Another Round lies one of the eternal questions—does alcohol help open up the mind to stimulate or even liberate the imagination in helpful ways that might not have occurred otherwise, or is it, at the end of the day, a harmful depressant and mind-decayer, as well as a door-opener to abuse and violence? The Danish writer-director puts the topic on the table in disarming fashion but, in the end, literally dances away from it to reaffirm the status quo without significantly illuminating the issue as seemingly promised at the outset. This Samuel Goldwyn release had been selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival competition but ended up making its world premiere—remotely—at the Toronto Film Festival in September, just prior to its release in Denmark. The country has selected it as its submission in the International Feature Oscar race.

Alcoholism was one of Hollywood’s favorite serious topics for quite a few years after World War II, from the Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend in 1945 on through Something to Live For, A Star Is Born, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Days of Wine and Roses, to name just a few. Audiences accompanied the afflicted characters through innumerable plunges into dark nights of the soul, usually emerging as damaged but ultimately cleansed survivors ready for a new start.

Another Round initially seems to promise something rather different. The four central characters—male teachers sliding into middle age, looking it and feeling it—are keenly aware of time and, perhaps more noticeably, their sharpness, slipping away. Every day—and then every year—passes the same way, with no changes and with a diminishing sense of engagement. Marriages rot and the future almost guarantees nothing different will ever happen to them, especially in security-conscious Scandinavia.

Middle-aged funk has specifically overtaken Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a high school history teacher who’s so completely lost his spark that his students call him out for being indifferent and not teaching them well. His wife Mette is still hanging on but the couple have nothing to say to one another. “Have I become boring?” he asks her. The answer is clear.

But talk about taking the bull by the horns: Martin becomes fascinated by the theories of real-life psychiatrist, author and Norwegian Olympics Committee member Finn Skarderud, who has controversially proposed that the normal blood alcohol level of human beings, 0.05 percent, is too low; people would be far more sharp-minded, engaged, energetic and on top of things, he argues, if they maintained a level of 0.10.

Martin and his buddies—fellow teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe), soccer coach Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—decide to put theory into practice. Knocking back some vodka in the school bathroom before class and confirming with a breathilizer that he’s hit the desirable level just before class, Martin is suddenly a new man and teacher—he’s engaging, funny, dynamic and intellectually stimulating. Asking the kids if they’d vote for a drunk or a teetotaler, he then puts it another way: Who would you prefer as your nation’s leader, boozers Winston Churchill and FDR, or teetotaler Adolf Hitler? Case closed. (Just for fun, the director mixes in some pathetically hilarious footage of former Russian leaders Brezhnev and Yeltsin seriously in their cups.)

Emboldened by their initially forays into spirits-fueled teaching, and reminding that Hemingway allegedly quit drinking at 8 p.m. to be ready for the next morning’s literary wrestling, the men press ahead successfully; Tommy’s results with the soccer team improve, and one borderline-failing student actually aces his final exam after one of the teachers has him take a belt.

Mixology may be an art form of sorts, but drinking itself invites excess, and even if these fortysomethings should know better, they end up not learning from their mistakes; they even show up drunk at a school staff meeting, seriously undercutting their purposefulness. The final third of Another Round (the film’s original title, Druk, means “drinking” or “boozing” in Danish) slowly loses the high the film achieves in its opening stretch and ultimately settles on a very conventional acceptance of the status quo, even if Mikkelsen does pump things up by leading a rambunctious, Broadway-ready dance routine that strikes an almost Rodgers & Hammerstein note.

Another Round could have been more distinctive–and challenging–if Vinterberg had pushed further into Skarderud territory by dramatically exploring the shrink’s provocative theories; what if, at least for a while, the four men had scrupulously followed his alcoholic formula for keenness of mind, tested it by discovering its outer limits and actually reached, through personal experience, conclusions about its efficacy, pro or con. Could a medically controlled, low level of alcoholic stimulation actually help open people’s imaginations, enthusiasms and sense of engagement with their work and other people, or bring them further out of their intellectual and emotional shells? It all sounds highly unlikely, and I’ve never heard of such an argument having been broached before. All the same, inquiring minds would like to know.

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