ANOTHER ROUND (2020)

One-line review: Four middle-aged friends use alcohol to get back their high for living.

Another Round’s original title in Danish is Druk, or binge drinking, which has no English equivalent. But the English title allows multiple interpretations of the term another round: it could be for a drink, love, and life. The film is director Thomas Vinterberg’s labor of love and salvation after losing his daughter in an accident four days into shooting (she was also supposed to star in the film). He dedicated his Oscar for the best international film to her. A dark, melancholic strain runs through the film, but we also see glimpses of light reassuring us that hope lies ahead, even though it may not be around the corner. The film’s lead Mads Mikkelson calls it Vinterberg’s Italian film because it is life-affirming despite the gloom.  

The film is about four middle-aged friends, all high school teachers, jaded with work and life, just going through the motions. Even their students and families sense it. The leading man, Martin (Mads Mikkelson), has a breakdown about being stuck in a rut at his friend Nikolaj’s (Magnus Millang) fortieth birthday party. While his friends are getting drunk, Martin sticks to water because he must drive them home. Nikolaj then cites psychologist Sk√•rderud’s theory that humans have a 0.05% alcohol deficit in their bodies and how nullifying the deficit can help you function better. Martin is suddenly on board, and so are the other two friends, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larson) and Peter (Lars Ranthe). 

The four friends then set out on their secret project, stealthily drinking in school to keep their BAC at 0.05%. To prove they are not alcoholics, they have rules of not drinking past eight or on weekends. The results are spectacular. Usually a pushover in class, Martin becomes assertive and teaches unforgettable history lessons, takes his family on a canoe, and even briefly reconnects with his wife. Nikolaj can put up with his three kids peeing all over him, Tommy rallies his sports team, and Peter encourages his students to sing some passionate music. Thrilled at the positive results of their experiment, the friends decide to push it even further by increasing their BAC and seeing if they can perform better. But things do not end well when the school authorities discover drinks, and a very drunk Tommy shows up at the meeting, outing himself. Although the experiment ends abruptly, almost everyone escapes unscathed, emerges sadder but wiser, rejuvenated that they did something risky together.    

The film ends with the famous Mads Mikelson dance scene set to the catchy “What a life” by the Danish band Scarlet Pleasure. Martin is grieving a loss, but his life is also unexpectedly looking up because his wife may get back with him. What should he do? But suddenly, Martin does not care, not a damn.  Mikkelson, a trained ballet dancer before his film career, had reservations about dancing because he felt it would ruin the film’s authenticity. But Vinterberg prevailed. The dance is not perfectly choreographed and has some missteps, but it is an unbridled catharsis for Martin, leading Director Guillermo del Toro to call it one of the best ending scenes in cinema. We also see Denmark’s most famous ship loudly sailing by (an unexpected coincidence). Finally, the film ends with a freeze shot of Martin leaping into the waters. Will he fly or fall? Who cares? He will be just fine either way. It reminded me of an Australian tour bus driver jokingly telling us tourists that if the bus fell off the cliff, we must not forget to admire the view on our way down.  

The film strikes an emotional chord because of its portrayal of thick friendships. But I could not help thinking about the immense role women play in helping keep men’s friendships alive. Nikolaj’s wife picks up most of the burden of raising three kids while he is out drinking with his friends; Martin’s children are also mostly left to fend for themselves. But this aside, the film lets us into the joys of friendship and gives us a peek at how outwardly dour middle-aged men can be fun in private. When Martin mentions his marital problems, his friends immediately ask him if he has considered someone else. The film is like dark chocolate; even at its sweetest moments, the melancholy never goes away, but satisfyingly so. What is life without pain? And what’s life without being able to ease someone’s pain? Eventually, it is the little details that elevate the film. Scenes like Tommy physically helping his old dog pee or being the father figure to the much-bullied boy Specs, Martin watching over Tommy, or Peter helping an anxiety-ridden student gather courage: all suffuse the film with a warm glow. 

The film is perfectly cast. Mads Mikkelson strikes again and plays Martin with the right amount of pathos and swag (he was a promising young scholar until life got in the way). Magnus Millang plays the group’s bad boy Nikolaj with a tinge of unlikability. Lars Ranthe Peter is like a cute puppy, boisterous, and always ready to play. But the film’s heart is Thomas Bo Larson’s Tommy. Despite his pain, he is a giver and does not realize his impact on so many others. The four men’s bond appears well lived in and genuine, not surprising since they rehearsed extensively with different BACs. 

Vinterberg, when discussing the movie’s global acceptance, thinks its cultural specificity makes it more interesting than a mainstream drinking movie. Vinterberg is on to something when he wonders why his mainstream movies like Far from the Madding Crowd or the submarine tragedy Kursk did not do well, while his Danish movies like Hunt and now Another Round have captured the imagination of global audiences. These are just coincidences, but it is worth exploring if we must look for the diamonds in our backyard rather than go on perilous voyages to seek them in other countries.  

Why watch it? For a Danish masterclass on the universal theme of second chances and drinking.

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