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'Another Round'? This Tipsy Danish Film Asks, Why Not?

In <em>Another Round</em>, Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is a bored and boring teacher who decides that life would be better with more alcohol.
Henrik Ohsten
Courtesy of TIFF
In Another Round, Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is a bored and boring teacher who decides that life would be better with more alcohol.

In one of his many hymns to drinking, Charles Bukowski, that great bard of the barstool, explained the eternal promise of drunkenness. "It [takes] away the obvious," he wrote, "and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn't become obvious yourself."

This claim gets a test drive in Another Round, a crowd-pleasing Danish movie that's the frontrunner for this year's Oscar for Best International Feature Film. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg — himself a surprise nominee for Best Director — Another Round has an amusingly louche premise: Four middle-aged high school teachers decide to see whether their lives will be better if they always have alcohol in their system.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Martin, a one-time live-wire who's become a bored and boring teacher, and a detached father and husband. One night he joins his pals Peter and Tommy for their friend Nikolaj's 40th birthday dinner. Over many bottles, Nikolaj tells them about a Norwegian psychiatrist who argues that human bodies are designed to run best with .05 percent alcohol in their bloodstream. (In the U.S., a person is considered legally impaired when their blood alcohol content is .08 percent or higher.)

Telling themselves they're doing research — why, they'll write a paper! — the four agree to try the idea out. The next day they knock back some booze before entering the classroom. And at first, Bukowski and the Norwegian shrink appear to be right. Walking around with a nice buzz, they feel liberated from the obvious, in the world and in themselves. As for Martin, he not only turns back into a funny, inspiring teacher but also an attentive and romantic family man.

In fact, the experiment is going so well that Martin suggests things might go even better with even more alcohol in their system. How could anything go wrong?

Before getting to what exactly goes wrong, though, I want to emphasize that Another Round is a very entertaining film. It's energetic, attentively shot and exceedingly well acted — which is impressive because it's so easy to overdo playing drunk. While all four friends are terrific, the film rightly orbits around Mikkelsen, a genuine movie star whose ambiguous, slightly sinister good looks make even the early, boring Martin charismatic. Whether tippling, moping or dancing — at which he's great, by the way — he's as good here as any of this year's Best Actor nominees.

This is Mikkelsen's second collaboration with Vinterberg, who made his name as co-creator of the movement known as Dogme 95. It sought to do for film what punk had done for music — strip away its pricey, overproduced commercial slickness and get back to something purer, more real and more aggressive. Vinterberg's breakthrough 1998 film The Celebration, was a sensationally good example — and like so many Dogme films, it was also gleefully naughty.

Two decades on, Vinterberg has kept some of that movement's trademarks, from the jittery hand-held camera that captures flickering emotions to its promise of the transgressive. The film's Danish title is Druk, which means "Binge Drinking" — a far less inviting title than Another Round. Curiously enough, the English title is truer to the film. You see, despite its surface realism and apparently bold theme, Another Round is the kind of safe film Dogme rejected.

Now, Vinterberg is no square, and his film is clearly rebelling against our modern puritanism about intoxication. He wants to celebrate the boozing and camaraderie that sustains a drinking culture like Denmark. And that's fair enough. Still, this doesn't free him from his obligations to the reality lurking in his premise.

When I suggested earlier that things go wrong, I meant with the film not the characters. Because Another Round sets up a provocative situation with four men drinking far too much, we expect it to provoke a deeper understanding of alcohol, men and their midlife crises. That's what John Cassavetes sought to do with his bold, if unlikable 1970 film Husbands. Here, despite a few painful moments, Vinterberg steers us in the opposite direction, building toward a conventionally upbeat finale that isn't merely sentimental but exuberantly so.

That said, it doesn't really bother me that so many viewers love Another Round and revel in its Hollywood ending. After all, the whole world feels like it's been mired in a midlife crisis for the last year, so it cheers people up to see a movie in which drinking too much actually makes things better.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.