This is a drowsy week for new movies (there’s a Bruce Willis space-action film called Cosmic Sin opening, but you should forget about it immediately). And since the Oscars are coming up on April 25, now might be a good time to look back over last year’s movies (which this year include everything released through February 28) and maybe catch up with some worthy pictures you might have missed. For a lot of people, that could include Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, a tribute to the melancholy charisma of Mads Mikkelsen, which is on the Academy shortlist for Best International Feature.
It’s hard to imagine this movie being made in precisely the same way in this country, and not just because it opens with a Kierkegaard quote. Its subject is binge drinking, a lot of which we see being done by teenagers, often with the chuckling approval of their elders, who look back fondly on their own drunken teen years. (The drinking age in Denmark is 16.) No moral stance is taken; we see the damage—but we see the fun, too.
The story centers on four middle-aged friends: Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen). They’re all teachers at a Copenhagen high school, and we first see them in action at a 40th birthday party for Nikolaj, where they start out with beer, then move on to champagne, then vintage Burgundy, and then whatever’s wet and within reach. They seem to be having fun, but there’s a cloud of faded dreams hanging over them. Martin, once headed for a PhD and a big research grant, got derailed by marriage and kids. Now, he says, “I don’t do much. I don’t see many people. I don’t know how I ended up like this.”
So okay, male menopause. But then these four friends discover the theories of a Norwegian academic named Finn Skårderud (a real person, and a consultant on the film). Skårderud, we’re told, believes that the human body has an alcohol deficit—that people should drink more (about five percent more) in order to boost their blood alcohol level. Martin and his friends like the sound of this, and soon they’re starting their days off with a hit of booze, followed by booster swigs throughout the day, carefully monitored by little breathalyzer gadgets they’ve all acquired.
The change in their lives is swift. Where Martin was once listless and uninspired, he now vibrates with energy. He’s funny and playful (he’s not full-on drunk, he’s just loose), and his students—who previously found him incredibly boring—are captivated. His fellow day drinkers are having similar experiences. “I haven’t been teaching this well in ages,” says Tommy. And Peter has become something of an evangelist: When one of his students has a bout of nerves before a test, Peter suggests he have a drink (and provides one). Meanwhile, Martin’s drinking also gooses his sleepy marriage back to life, much to the delighted surprise of his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie). “I’ve missed us,” she says, after an unexpected carnal interlude during a canoeing trip.
We know that things can’t go on this way, and they don’t. The big drinking experiment comes to an end, with significant collateral damage. Martin realizes he has wrecked his life and wonders if he can ever patch it back up. A Kierkegaard scholar says, “You must accept yourself as fallible in order to love others, and life.” In a memorable scene we see Martin out in the street, amid passing trucks filled with celebrating students—a new generation of doomed revelers. Very Scandinavian. But Martin is dancing.