The idea of a film detailing the misadventures of men going through a midlife crisis is nothing new. In American cinema alone, it’s had a wide range of success and quality, from the Hangover trilogy to basically everything Adam Sandler and David Spade have done since they left Saturday Night Live. But just because the formula is old doesn’t mean we can’t break new ground with it, as director Thomas Vinterberg demonstrates with Another Round, Denmark’s entry for the Oscar for Best International Feature. Focusing on a charismatic core cast and an oddly intriguing intellectual study, what could be just another exercise in toxic man-children refusing to grow up instead turns into a life-affirming tragicomedy that serves as a modern take on such classics as The Lost Weekend.
Mads Mikkelsen ( Hannibal, Rogue One, Doctor Strange, etc.) stars as Martin, a history teacher at a Danish gymnasium (three-year high school that specializes in college prep) who has hit a bit of a rut in his life. He’s settled into a comfortable routine, is a loving husband to Anika (Maria Bonnevie from The 13th Warrior) and father to two adolescent sons, and enjoys the occasional night out with his friends and colleagues. However, he feels a distance from his loved ones, and fears he may have become too boring for them. Professionally, his students barely pay attention, and even sic their parents on to him because he grades harshly on exams. While he believes blame should at least be shared with his phone-gazing, heavy-drinking students (the film opens with a beer-chugging race among the kids; Denmark has no formal legal drinking age, merely restrictions on sales and places of consumption), in private he admits that he might be losing touch.
At the birthday dinner for his friend Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), Martin begins the evening drinking only soda water so that he can drive, but starts to break down when talking to his mates, and suddenly is boozing harder and faster than they are. After a night of supportive binging and mild shenanigans, the quartet — Martin, physical education teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), music teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj, who specializes in psychology — decides to conduct a personal experiment. Allegedly, Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud once suggested that humans are born with an alcohol deficiency in their bodies, and that if everyone maintained a Blood Alcohol Content of about 0.05 (essentially two drinks), people would ostensibly live happier, more creative lives. They resolve to put his theory into practice, making sure to maintain a therapeutic buzz each day.
The results are fairly predictable, with things starting out great for all four of them (Martin is more engaged with his family and students, Tommy becomes a better coach, and so on) before inevitably going south as the foursome continues to up the ante. Again, these are familiar tropes, but the execution is done so well that you can’t help but chuckle along with them and hope that they’ll somehow all make it through okay, despite the odds and common sense. Mikkelsen and Ranthe work especially hard to make this a lovable group of middle aged misfits. Half the fun comes from their seemingly oblivious attempts to get away with their antics in plain sight. For example, there’s a great scene of Peter leading the school choir, and an exercise where he gets them to close their eyes while he draws the music room blinds shut is thought to inspire them to get more into the music, but it’s really just an excuse for him to chug vodka right in the open. There’s a sneaky cleverness to it all that draws you in, at least until things get out of hand and consequences affect more than just their insular cabal.
But what really fascinated me most of all was the academic approach, using a scientific, psychological experiment as a framing device for delinquent day drinking (the film’s Danish title, “Druk,” literally means “binge drinking”). As teachers, they take an intellectual approach to the issue, and even apply numerous examples of great historical and artistic achievements that coincide with heavy drinkers. Peter brings up Tchaikovsky, while Martin often cites Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway. In one particularly fun moment, Martin invokes a classic thought experiment with his students, getting them all to vote for Adolf Hitler over Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt by simply listing the nameless candidates’ vices or lack thereof. It’s an old trick if you know it, but the point is that depending on how any issue is spun, you can make a monster look virtuous, and as Martin himself illustrates, appearances are deceiving and a person’s actions dictate their value. The man is, quite literally, giving us some drunk history.
However, the experiment itself is inherently flawed. There are no sterile testing conditions, unless you think of alcohol itself as a sterilizing agent. They have some rules, like only drinking during the day so that they don’t get hungover and so that they can see if the effects of their buzz can carry on once sobriety takes over. But what they’re missing, apart from anything truly routine, is a control group. In order for this to work, you’d have to have a similar group of four who remain completely sober, so that results can be compared. Even within this core four, there are too many variables with their outside lives. Tommy lives alone with his aging dog, Peter still lives something of a lonely bachelor’s life, Martin has two adolescent sons, and Nikolaj has three sons all under 10, including a baby and a bed-wetting toddler, not to mention the fact that all four men are of different ages and body types. No one person’s result is comparable to another’s.
More importantly, by its very nature, alcohol can modify behaviors, and in the sense of this group, the term “control” becomes a living metaphor, as Martin and Tommy both exhibit symptoms of dependency. The whole experiment began because Martin got depressed while being sober and suddenly couldn’t stop himself getting drunk. When the group decides to binge themselves into the upper limits of tolerance (with slapstick results), Martin initially bows out, but then immediately succumbs to the temptation and peer pressure. If this were a real academic test, the data would be corrupted beyond practical use. Even the admiration for the likes of Churchill and Tchaikovsky would suggest an implicit bias that would taint any findings.
And yet, it’s captivating on an ironic level, because the characters are so richly drawn that one could argue that the booze is something of a placebo effect. The bond that the four share, as well as their secondary (to the plot anyway) links to family and work were always there. The state of near-constant inebriation merely introduced another angle to it that was more visible to them because it was outside their normal comfort zones. Martin was always a good teacher and a devoted husband. Peter was always a good musician. Tommy always knew how to bring out the best in young kids on the soccer pitch. They just couldn’t see it until they were literally blind drunk.
I’ll use myself as an example of this. I have anxieties. I’m introverted. It always takes me a while to open up to people or to be able to say the right things without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious. However, in my younger days — especially my 20s — if you got a few drinks in me, I became, on the surface at least, a totally different person. I was uninhibited. I could light up a room, tell all the right jokes, and even take over a house party. Because I have something of an underlying brogue to my voice, I embraced it and dubbed my drunken alter ego “Billy Irish.” Part of the reason I can’t stand Billie Eilish on a social level is because the kids think I’m ripping her off, even though Irish existed before she was even born. It was still the “real” me, just the me that I was afraid to let show under normal circumstances.
But while he was at times everything I wasn’t, the tradeoff was never knowing when to stop. That center of good judgment got switched off. Thankfully I never did anything illegal or truly regrettable, but I definitely got sick more times than I would have liked. As fun as it was, whenever I hit that zone, there was nothing I could do to maintain it, and every time I tried, I went beyond what my body could handle. Part of how I learned to deal with my anxiety was to realize that all the cool stuff about Billy Irish is still there. I just have to find the right avenues to bring it out. The awareness alone is a comfort, so much so that I don’t get drunk anymore, but I also haven’t stopped drinking altogether. I just found a balance.
That’s the tragic half of this film that counters the comedy. Because this is not a real experiment, but a thinly veiled context to drink with one’s buddies, none of them knows when or how to stop, only that they’ve gone too far once it’s already happened. And in some cases, even that’s not enough to get back to normal. It then hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks (or tonne, since Denmark’s on the metric system) where the emotional core of this film lies, and it puts a smile on your face despite the human cost. That’s what elevates it well beyond the exercises in excess we’ve seen in American films for the past decade plus, and what makes it worthy of Academy consideration. As Homer Simpson famously said, “To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many benders have you gone on? What’s your go-to cocktail? Let me know!