Imagine the following: you’re a teacher, male, middle-aged. Your adolescent pupils barely notice you, that’s one thing, but worse: so does your wife. When you ask her whether you’ve become boring, she doesn’t give you the reassuring answer you crave – nor the bluntly honest one you fear, which is somehow just as bad. It’s not that your life is bad – you have a well-paid job, a nice house, kids, friends -, it’s just that you suspect you’re not very good at living it, and you haven’t been for a long time.
What do you do?
For Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the answer is deceptively simple: Nikolaj, something of a “Well, actually…” type, knows of a researcher, Finn Skårderud, who suggests that human beings are born with a blood alcohol level that is 0.05% too low – so, in order to function at their best, the men decide, they need to make up for that congenital defect: they need to make sure that they are at a constant level of alcoholisation to reach those 0.05%. Obviously the whole thing is framed as a science project: the four friends set up parameters and rules (such as “No drinking after 8pm or on weekends”), they commit to taking copious notes of the “verbal, motor and psycho-rhetorical effects” (it sounds even deludedly funnier in the original Danish). This is research, after all, not a midlife crisis. Right?
The answer is “Right”, with a snarky slant: clearly the protagonists of Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, Academy Award-winning film Another Round, are all to some degree or other going through that particularly male phase where they realise that they do not live up to the expectations of their younger selves. They are less interesting than they thought they’d become, less successful, less cool and fun and sexy. One can almost see the physical weight of the doubts, fears and hangups they carry around with themselves. Growing up and achieving the things that a man is supposed to achieve hasn’t made the ones that have achieved them happy or fulfilled: it’s just made them older. And while the tone of Vinterberg’s film is often funny, the writer-director is not unaware of the underlying sadness of these characters, a sadness that definitely resonated with this particular audience member: if even Mads Mikkelsen can grow up to be a character that bores his classes, his wife and himself, what chance do the rest of us have?
Except, how do you truly escape, when what you’re hoping to escape is the person you’ve become and the life you’ve made for yourself? Their experiment with alcohol may make Martin et al. more relaxed, more mellow and more fun, but whatever fundamental problems they have aren’t solved. More importantly, as they start tweaking the parameters of their ‘study’ to drink more and more, many of the issues that they’re struggling with are amplified. Martin may be more fun, as a teacher and as a father, husband and lover, but he’s become no better at talking to his wife than he was before. In fact, new, fun Martin seems to understand less that there are fundamental problems in his marriage – because, after all, the booze is helping him be cooler and more exciting, right? So what could possibly be wrong?
It cannot come as a huge surprise that the quartet’s experiment eventually goes bad – but the striking thing is that Vinterberg’s film never turns to moralising, and good old booze isn’t the antagonist of the film. In fact, as the men begin their project, they – and especially Martin – quickly experience benefits much like the ones described by Skårderud. As their alcohol levels rise, their neuroses, their niggling worries and insecurities diminish. This is certainly no news to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a glass or two of alcohol, but Vinterberg gets the exhilaration of intoxication more right than any other filmmaker I can remember without ever making it feel like he is trivialising alcohol. Another Round shows us the thrill its protagonists feel as decades of accumulated psychological and emotional wear and tear seem to disappear and give way to a sense of release, but Vinterberg places hints even throughout the film’s first half that the issues these characters have don’t just pop like a champagne bubble. That second, third or fourth glass of mostly vodka (to better hide the smell of the alcohol, especially during school hours) isn’t a solution so much as an escape, and it’s this escape that all four of the men become addicted to.
In its last third, Vinterberg’s film veers sharply towards drama and even tragedy. The experiment started by the four men turns into a long, hard, painful hangover. But even now, Vinterberg doesn’t succumb to facile finger-wagging. If Another Round is a cautionary tale, it’s less that alcohol (or indeed any kind of drug, any gateway to abandon) is bad, but that a midlife crisis cannot be solved by an additional 0.05%, 0.07% or any amount of booze. If you look at yourself and you don’t like what you’ve become, beer goggles may make you like what you see better – but it doesn’t make you better at life. Enjoy that Sazerac by all means (even if a glass of that will take you past those perfect 0.05%), but be honest about what it can and can’t do. It won’t turn you into Mads Mikkelsen… sometimes even if you’re Mads Mikkelsen to begin with.