Would you be able to do your job, at optimum capacity, when drunk? This is the question posed by the writer-director Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, an absurdist tragicomedy centred on a quartet of middle-aged teachers who microdose alcohol at school in the name of ‘science’. The idea crops up in jest at a 40th-birthday meal when the friends discuss the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skarderud’s (patently incorrect) theory that all humans are born with a 0.05 per cent shortage of ethanol in our bodies.
Ground down by the daily indignities of their unfulfilling realities, the foursome is just desperate enough to try and inch up their own blood-alcohol content, hoping to recapture their confidence one slug of vodka at a time. They decide to conduct an experiment: each of them will drink during the working day and monitor whether their tipsiness results in increased social and professional performance. Another Round’s premise is far-fetched to say the least, but the actors fully sell it, imbuing their characters with a warm sincerity that thaws disbelief.
The film chiefly concerns itself with Martin (Mads Mikkelsen, heavy-lidded and gruff), the self-pitying history teacher whose zest for life has all but shrivelled up in the face of lacerating indifference. He fails to command the respect he once did: his wife is cheating on him, his children barely acknowledge him and his pupils catch up on sleep during his classes. Mikkelsen – who won best actor at Cannes in 2012 for his haunting turn as an ostracised nursery-school assistant in Vinterberg’s The Hunt – is equally riveting here, excavating Martin’s internalised dejection and moulding his performance in its image. Every gesture, every word is executed with a lethargy that communicates total worldweariness.
Then, the drinking starts. The effect is astounding, Mikkelsen’s mien utterly transformed. Where previously Martin was slumped behind his desk, listing facts at his students in a drudgerous monotone, a nip of bourbon propels him out of his seat and has him pacing around the classroom, starting lively debates with students. Bemused by this shock of vitality, the teenagers respond to their teacher’s sudden energy as if he were Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, clapping and cheering throughout his newly engaging lessons.
Another Round understands how amusing it is to see Martin and his grizzled, over-the-hill colleagues sloppily fumble through the school day, and documents their shenanigans with a permissive tenderness. Dragged off autopilot, the men let loose and enjoy themselves for the first time in years, freshly awakened to life’s possibilities. Although the teachers routinely measure their intoxication levels on personal breathalyser tests – whose results Vinterberg records with cutaways to numbers ticking up onscreen – there comes a point where the line between using and abusing alcohol narrows and is, eventually, crossed.
The film-maker’s treatment of his characters’ inevitable downfall is remarkably light-footed and never minimises the very real consequences of addiction. The tonal shift to seriousness is ably managed, and puts the movie’s former frivolity into sharp relief. One scene where a slurring, blind-drunk Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) clatters around the staff-room, barely able to hold himself upright, while his peers look on in stunned silence, is mortifying in its authenticity.
The film’s original title literally translates as ‘binge-drinking’, a phenomenon that, contrary to popular belief, is disproportionately practised among middle-aged men. Martin’s exasperated wife Anika (Maria Bonnevie) complains, “This whole country drinks like maniacs.” But excessive drinking is not a Danish problem: it affects the whole of the West. Another Round edges political critique into its contained story via a montage of archive footage showing a cross section of world leaders past and present – Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, Bill Clinton etc. – clearly inebriated at different international meetings, giggling foolishly at G8 summits or stammering through White House speeches.
By pointing out that our elected officials drink on the job, Vinterberg adds credibility to his farcical tale and demonstrates the extent to which, for better or worse, alcohol is a cornerstone of our culture. Riding on a flotilla of wine, cocktails and spirits, Another Round is a humorous and heart-warming exploration of four men taking self-fulfilment into their own hands – and realising it can’t be found at the bottom of a beer glass.
‘Another Round’ is released in cinemas on 5 February.