“Another Round” wastes no time confronting the danger and allure of alcohol as a singular contradiction: It begins with the joyful beer-swigging exploits of energetic teens, followed by an abrupt cut to black, and a jarring silence pierced by the lonely slosh of a single beverage. From there, Thomas Vinterberg’s absorbing dark comedy turns into a lively and fascinating referendum on booze, with Mads Mikkelsen’s fierce and unsettling performance vibrating at its center. Teaming up for the first time since their similarly unnerving character study “The Hunt” in 2012, the Danish actor and director join forces for a wily character study that enhances the one-note premise through the sheer gusto of its execution.
The alcohol guzzled throughout “Another Round” begins as a form of salvation, takes a deadly turn, and ends on an open question. Mikkelsen embodies that uneasy journey as Martin, a jaded high school history teacher, utterly deflated as he enters middle age. Married with two teens and a distant wife who works nights (Maria Bonnevie), Martin is all sunken eyes and mumbling asides, the shell of whatever happiness kept him moving along. He’s sad, boring, and kind of buzzkill — so when he’s out one night for dinner with a trio of longtime friends for the 40th birthday celebration of Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), the guys all push him to stop whining and join them for a drink. Vinterberg milks the sudden transformation for all its cinematic potential: Mikkelsen’s eyes widen as nearby tenor singers overtake the soundtrack and the alcohol settles into his system.
But “Another Round” doesn’t merely follow Martin down a queasy path toward constant inebriation. The movie’s high concept finds this quartet of buddies obsessing over an obscure theory by Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderund, who argues that humans require alcohol in their system to thrive and suggests a daily intake in the vicinity of 5%. And at first, that proves true enough: Before long, Martin’s gone into pure “Nutty Professor” mode, as he smuggles Smirnoff and a breathalyzer into the bathroom before unleashing kooky history lessons to his previously bemused students. Nikolaj and gym teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) find similar success, and soon the men careen into the inevitable downward spiral, upping their daily intake goals until they’ve devolved into drunken train-wrecks.
Vinterberg’s script, co-written by Tobias Lindholm, has a little too much fun overstating the zaniness of Martin’s story, and the way his little crew justifies their indulgences. Onscreen numbers count up their rising BAC, and the filmmaker even cuts to a montage of intoxicated world leaders — from Angela Merkel to Boris Johnson — to extrapolate the argument in play: Maybe alcohol truly is the golden elixir that has been missing from their lives. (As they keep raising the booze barrier, one man declares their intentions “to take this to the Tchaikovsky level.”) However its underlying silliness, though, “Another Round” cuts deep as the reality check sets in. As Martin embraces his alcoholism, “Another Round” spirals into an ironic portrait of debauchery loaded with vicious twists, leading to hectic decisions both wrenching and hilarious. Martin sees what he wants to see, and the blurry vision only reveals the truth of the matter when he’s in too deep.
Once the ludicrous concept settles in, “Another Round” has few surprises in store, but Vinterberg maintains pitch-black suspense throughout. Ever since “The Celebration,” the filmmaker’s best work has turned on a queasy tone where mannered exchanges can spin out of control at any moment, and in this case that happens literally more than once. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (having quite a year with this work on the heels of “Wendy” and “Shirley”) captures Martin’s transformation in textured closeups that allow the actor’s face to tell the story, deepening a drama that could easily devolve into broad comedy without Mikkelsen’s complex investment in the part. Needless to say, the women in the movie — mostly frustrated wives — receive little room for character development. But that’s a logical extension of a movie centered on men who can’t seem to look beyond the immediate solution to their problems.
“Another Round” goes to some bleak places, including one man’s outrageous decision to coax a troubled teen to drink, all of them endangering their jobs — as well as their family lives — as their drinking habits take charge. Just when that routine grows tiresome, Mikkelsen keeps injecting new layers into Martin’s conundrum, right down to a climactic dance number that ranks as one of his greatest moments onscreen. Riddled with anger and sadness, he embodies the fundamental tragedy of alcoholism as a mess of unbridled energy and ambivalence, the cycle that Martin can’t escape because it’s just too easy to remain within its clutches.
“Another Round” is a furious and sad movie at its core, but not one devoid of hope, and that’s heartening in light of the circumstances that surround its creation. Vinterberg closes things out with an end-credit dedication to his daughter, Ida, who died in a car accident at the age of 19 last year. It’s not hard to imagine the filmmaker relating to the cynicism at the heart of Martin’s saga, as “Another Round” certainly avoids any optimism about the unpredictability of life’s many twists. Nevertheless, there’s a fundamental thrill to watching Vinterberg and Mikkelsen find their groove again. Whatever understandable rage Vinterberg feels toward a brutal or indifferent world, “Another Round” is alive with the potency of their collaboration.
“Another Round” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.