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Drunk on Life

Henrik Ohsten/The BFI London Film Festival

Another Round (2020)

The most shocking part of this movie is that they are teachers: Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) is the gym teacher and soccer coach; Peter (Lars Ranthe) is the music teacher and piano player; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) is the psychology teacher, the youngest of the group, and a father of three exhausting young sons; and Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is the history teacher, for whom life is entirely gray. He and his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), hardly speak anymore, his sons don’t even make eye contact, and the P.T.A. calls a meeting to tell him how concerned they are about his level of teaching. The four men go for a blow-out dinner for Nikolaj’s 40th, at which Nikolaj tells Martin, “I think you lack self-confidence and joy.” Normally, anyone expressing this to the man who’s been the nation’s leading movie star for a quarter-century would be laughed over the border. But as Martin, Mr. Mikkelsen has crumpled, and his friends set about clowning around until they cheer him up. The fun they have at the dinner gives them all a terrible idea.

The idea is this: If being drunk makes you funnier and more self-confident, surely it’s a good idea to be a little bit drunk all the time? The men talk themselves into it by framing it as a scientific experiment – Nikolaj even types up notes, which will have even the most modest viewer shrieking the “is you taking notes” Stringer Bell quote from “The Wire.” But one morning Martin locks himself into a toilet stall at the school and has some vodka before going to class. His friends in the faculty lounge notice the difference right away. The kids in the class notice too, even if they don’t understand why; this day Martin is an engaged and funny teacher, cracking jokes and bringing the whole group into the discussion. In these circumstances, the men reason, what can the experiment hurt?

Well, duh – and the smartest part about Thomas Vinterberg’s film is that it never lets it be forgotten. Little children to be fed, cars to be driven, despairing teenagers to be encouraged – they’re all right there, always. The chance for catastrophe is forever in their hands, and they know it. The script by Tobias Lindholm is careful to frame this exciting buzz as getting back to the hope and courage the kids in their school have. That is, kids who haven’t really failed much and almost certainly aren’t weighted down with regrets. But it also shows how hard the friends have to work at meeting their responsibilities while half-cut, and how fine the line that they are walking is. Although if you need your own breathalyzer to look after yourself, the line isn’t that fine after all.

It’s really interesting, the picture of masculinity this movie paints. By all regards, Martin and Nikolaj should have happy lives, but the grind of parenting which has worn down their marriages is explicitly shown as the cause of their low mood. The centering of heteronormative family life is taken as read, which is refreshing insofar that not a whisper of blame is raised against the wives specifically or women generally, although one wonders how much that is because Nikolaj’s wife Amalie is played by Helene Reingaard Neumann, Mr. Vinterberg’s wife. The tedium of looking after little children and the weight of responsibilities is just how it is. The question is how to cope with getting what you wanted.

Peter’s home life isn’t shown at all, although he is depicted as the most solidly successful teacher – albeit the one who makes the most shocking decision as regards to a student. The way Tommy, the oldest of the group, is shown is unfortunately the most loaded with cliché, and the ending would have had much greater power if it had gone in the one of the other directions. The end, of course, is focused on that great movie star – and it’s the only time Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera work lets the movie down, by getting overexcited. It’s understandable – Mr. Mikkelsen is an intensely watchable physical presence, and the way the film teases the finale is a terrific marriage of actor to script.

But the way in which Tommy is depicted makes it clear Mr. Vinterberg has gotten a little too comfortable with his skills and abilities. This is a man who exploded onto the world stage back in 1995 with “The Celebration,” the first Dogme film, about a family torn apart by a father’s horrific abuse of his children. It was fresh and unpredictable, both in script and style. That is not so much the case anymore. Mr. Vinterberg is of course himself no longer a kid; and as with his characters, he has the weight of his former choices behind him. The repeated emphasis on Søren Kierkegaard and his discussion of anxiety and failure shows how this is weighing on him. The montage of drunk politicians and the references to Winston Churchill and Ulysses S. Grant – both timely and relevant – explicitly connects power with the positive effects of alcohol, but it’s a dumb mistake. What the kids have and the adults don’t is friendship. That’s all. For the kids, drinking is something fun to do with their mates. The adults have gotten things the wrong way around. This lacuna is a surprise, but this is a movie about the dangers of taking things for granted. Well, that and whether or not we’ll get to see Mr. Mikkelsen dancing. The combination of the two is a worthwhile mixture, but a shakeup of the ingredients would have made this even sweeter going down.


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