That esteemed contemporary sage Homer Simpson once observed that alcohol was “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” The idea behind that joke permeates “Another Round” (“Druk”), the latest from director Thomas Vinterberg (“Far From the Madding Crowd”), a film that centers on drinking to excess but winds up being more about mid-life crises and less a jeremiad about the evils of demon rum.
Working from an incisive and insightful screenplay he wrote with Tobias Lindholm (a longtime Vinterberg collaborator, and also the director of “A War”), Vinterberg crafts another drama that presents the best and worst of human nature as paths to be explored. His characters don’t necessarily choose the right one, and sometimes we’re left to wonder which selection they’ve made, but Vinterberg — in marked contrast to his fellow Dogme 95 filmmaker Lars von Trier — at least concedes that redemption might exist.
Mads Mikkelsen stars as Martin, a middle-aged schoolteacher in a middle-aged fog — he has all but checked out on his duties to his wife Trine (Maria Bonnevie) and his students. (His rambling history lectures somehow jump from the Industrial Revolution to Churchill and back again.) He and two other teachers, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen, Vinterberg’s “The Hunt”) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), attend a 40th birthday dinner for their colleague, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang); Martin tries to be the designated driver that night but succumbs to peer pressure and the waiter’s florid descriptions of the wines and vodka being served.
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Nikolaj proposes that they test out a theory from Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, which suggests that man’s blood-alcohol level is actually 0.5% too low, and that a small but steady intake of alcohol during work hours would help people reach peak performance. The men decide to give it a go, taking notes throughout to assure themselves that this is all for science and not just for sneaking shots of vodka in the bathroom between classes.
At first, it works. They become better teachers, better coaches, and Martin and Trine connect emotionally (and physically) for the first time in ages. But we know this experiment is going to take a disastrous turn, and Vinterberg and Lindholm know we know it, and they make sure we witness every step of their downfall.
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This is the kind of story you can imagine Hollywood getting wrong in any number of ways, but Vinterberg and Lindholm very precisely balance a clinical perspective with empathetic understanding and quite a bit of humor along the way. By the finale, Martin finds himself at a crossroads, and that uncertainty comes to full fruition in a brilliant closing sequence that’s both joyous and heartbreaking. (It’s also inconceivable that a mainstream American movie would include the scene where Peter advises a nervous student to slam a few shots before taking an oral exam — advice that actually works.)
Mikkelsen adds to his gallery of unforgettable characters; we’ve seen so many handsome, charismatic actors turn to fake mustaches, bad haircuts and slovenly posture when they try to hide their light under a bushel, but Mikkelsen turns himself into a nebbishy failure in the subtlest ways possible. He’s greatly aided by the other three actors (particularly Millang) that make up the film’s central quartet, both jovial and tragic, and Bonnevie gets to go big in Trine’s confrontation scene with Martin, but she’s even more affecting later as she endures his attempted reconciliation at a restaurant.
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Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (“Victoria”) thankfully never overplays this hand, but the movie does offer the subtlest bit of POV for the characters: Martin’s classroom suddenly seems brighter when he’s got a buzz on, and there’s a sunny, ESPN-house-ad majesty to the kiddie soccer game that Tommy coaches late in the film as well. He may have perfected the “Beer Goggles” setting on a movie camera.
Cautionary tales about booze tend to go big and go definitive — think “The Lost Weekend,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Leaving Las Vegas” — but Vinterberg and Lindholm take a substantive look at substance abuse, placing it in character context and avoiding dramatic hysterics. “Another Round” is a film of more quiet desperation and a more thoughtful morality, and it goes down with a kick.