Thomas Vinterberg’s “Another Round” begins with the frenzied depiction of Danish youth completing a beer “case race,” though the debauched fun is fleeting for us – and them. The sequence collides with the film’s opening title cards, which quickly cede to a more sobering reality: a dry faculty meeting. Vinterberg’s opening clearly establishes the dichotomy that his characters try to resist and avoid, the depressing idea that life only exists in peaks and valleys.
Four middle-aged friends and fellow high school educators, over a dinner at which Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) has responsibly agreed to serve as the designated driver, begin to chafe at the idea they must accept this state of affairs. An off-handed reference to the theories of Finn Skårderud, which postulate humans are born with a 0.05% blood-alcohol content deficit. As an alternative to continuing to middle about in their humdrum realities, the quartet forges a pact to test the theory by maintaining a modest alcohol-fueled buzz throughout working hours. For science, of course!
The concept of “Another Round” feels like something perhaps better suited for bored college students, which is part of what makes the film such fun to watch unfold. The mature execution of an immature idea is one of many seemingly contradictory ideas they hope to debunk. The group approaches their challenge with rigor and order, instituting Ernest Hemingway-style rules of not drinking after 8 P.M. or on the weekends to concentrate the potency of the alcohol where it’s most needed. If they can succeed at finding the right balance of substance intake, the men believe they can rise above mundanity and tap into higher functions of courage and openness.
And, to start, they succeed. A tiny bit of alcohol in their system loosens them up and opens new possibilities. Martin engages his history class more than ever before by loosening up and finding ways to reframe dry material like an adolescent game. Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) begins to motivate the tykes on his youth football team with his newfound gusto for the game. Peter (Lars Ranthe) begins to spot a student succumbing to the sense of resignation and stress from which he escaped. Their “research” makes such an impact in their lives and the people around them that they decide to explore further stages with gusto. Again, strictly for research, and they refer to the experiment in grandiose academic jargon to persuade themselves of the seriousness of the task.
The core of their quest takes up the majority of “Another Round,” and it constitutes the best part as well. Vinterberg, once again reteaming with co-writer Tobias Lindholm, manages a tricky tonal balance between the film’s humorous elements and its dramatic core – yet never lets the audience see them sweat. They effortlessly glide between laughing with the characters and laughing at them, cheering them on while also quietly observing their follies. (The clever deployment of title cards help make their drolly removed commentary present in the film.)
The humor never stoops to juvenile levels, either. Perhaps the signature gag of the film comes when Martin slams his head into a doorframe in a hazy stupor, and it comes after a balletic weave through the teacher’s lounge that would otherwise suggest he’s tapped into a newfound grace. Mikkelsen in particular excels, but the whole principal cast elevates the film through their even-keeled performances. There are not “funny” moments or “dramatic” moments for their characters; there are simply “human” moments. Whether people react to them with laughter, pity or some combination of them both may say more about themselves than the film.
Even when “Another Round” veers towards an inevitable collision with a more somber reality in its third act, Vinterberg and Lindholm never resort to easy moralizing. Their boozy plea for moderation in all things, including moderation, does not assume the form of a sermon. Instead, the story plays out how its characters can arrive at a satisfying equilibrium through escalation. Alcoholism, marital strife, parental failure, professional consequences, and more are all on the table for the gang.
It’s a bit of an abrupt transition into this more clear-eyed portion of the film, perhaps the only major swing “Another Round” does not execute flawlessly. Even so, the third act is not like a hangover spoiling the memory of the previous night’s shenanigans. Vinterberg and Lindholm’s understanding of alcohol’s effects is additive, not reductive. Drinking can cause some problems, sure, but it also reveals others. Neither total temperance nor irresponsible imbibing is the silver bullet to midlife malaise. The answer, as best as Vinterberg can locate it, lies somewhere in a blurry middle ground between the two extremes. And for nearly two glorious hours, he allows viewers to watch the characters calibrate and navigate where that point might exist for them.
Theaters should absolutely host boozy screenings of “Another Round” when it becomes safe to do so to allow for a simultaneous release of joy around the responsible consumption of potent alcohol and cinema. For both, at their best, are excellent catalysts that enable people to explore themselves. [B+]