The Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg came up in the Dogme 95 movement, and he’s sort of like Lars von Trier if von Trier, beneath the radical flourishes, had become a conventional-minded director of mildly outré TV movies. (Netflix should snap him up.) In a Vinterberg film, there’s the hook, which is often provocative, and then there’s the execution, which tends to be overly telegraphed and a touch plodding and not fully psychologically convincing. Yet even after 20 years, Vinterberg is still wedded to the Dogme mannerisms — the no-frills camerawork, the improvvy austerity — that now have all the aesthetic frisson of a polished piece of Scandinavian bedroom furniture. His latest film, “Another Round,” might be described as a tragicomedy about the pleasures and perils of drinking, which sounds tasty, except that the movie turns out to be a frustrating and rather muddled experience, a “socially relevant” trifle that keeps undercutting itself.
It’s about four middle-aged friends who are teachers at the same high school, and it centers on Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), who was once a star instructor but is going through some sort of vaguely passive midlife crisis; he’s become a bored, ineffectual shadow of himself, and part of the problem is that he doesn’t even realize he’s sleepwalking. He sits in front of his social-studies class, in an unbuttoned plaid shirt worn over a T-shirt, trying to connect with his students, but they’ve stopped responding to him. So has his wife, Trine (Maria Bonnevie). (She works a lot of night shifts, maybe by choice.)
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One night, Martin goes out to a restaurant with his three teacher buddies, who are celebrating the 40th birthday of Nikolaj (Magnus Millang), a spiky bearded chap who looks like the bourgeois Danish version of 1970 Paul McCartney. The liquor is flowing: a velvet-smooth Russian vodka served with caviar, a red wine that got a 95 rating from Robert Parker. But Martin is drinking soda with lemon! His excuse is that he has to drive home and still has work to do. Martin, says Nikolaj, is just so sensible, adding, “But the question is, what’s sensible?” He cites the theory of a Norwegian philosopher and psychiatrist, Finn Skårderud, who says that it’s sensible to drink. All the time.
Skårderud claims that humans are born with a blood alcohol level that’s .05 percent too low. That’s one or two glasses of wine, and he says that people should drink to that level and maintain it. He says that if you do, you’re more relaxed and poised and musical and open. And more courageous. Anyone who has spent a night at a party drinking but not getting drunk — maintaining that .05 buzz — will know, in theory, what he means, and the prospect of a drama devoted to the creative use of drinking sounds like an intoxicatingly perverse idea.
Martin and his friends agree that they’ll go to school and try this out as an experiment, recording the results as if they were composing a scientific research paper. On the first day, Martin, in the school bathroom, pulls out a pint of Smirnoff and takes a couple of swigs.
Forgive me if I briefly lapse into the role of alcohol critic, but that moment was so jarring I felt the film immediately sliding off the rails. Smirnoff is not very good stuff, so why, on his first day of drinking at school, would Martin, who was reveling in world-class liquor at the birthday dinner, be reaching for this glorified rotgut? (And if the idea is to achieve a very mild buzz, is that really the way to do it?) “Another Round” is the kind of movie that’s so into its cool concept that it doesn’t sweat the details. Yet the film’s sloppy broadness ends up fighting the Dogme style, which keeps telling us that these people are authentic.
“Another Round” plays with a teasing idea: drinking all the time, and doing it not compulsively but knowingly, as an act of adventure. Yet the case the film makes for drinking isn’t so much wrongheaded as it is awesomely banal. Drinking loosens you up and makes you feel more confident! More lively and gregarious and talkative! It lifts the spirit! (That’s why they call it spirits.) Alert the media!
The film then subjects this buzz to the Vinterberg buzzkill. We’re eager to see the alcohol transform Martin, and there’s one lively (if a bit too on-the-nose) scene in which he teaches his students that FDR and Churchill were both major drinkers yet finer leaders than Hitler, who was a teetotaler. Yet just as we’re settling into Martin in his new mode of tipsy liberation, one of the other teachers — Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), the dour gym coach — gets his secret stash of liquor discovered at school, creating a mini scandal. That’s something that should have happened further into the movie; it short-circuits the drama. What’s more, it doesn’t take long — about 10 minutes of screen time — for Martin and his buddies to abandon the .05 idea and to start on the path of drinking to excess. (Martin gets so drunk in the faculty lounge that he walks right into a wall.)
What seemed like it had the potential to be a seriously bad idea — high-school teachers drinking on the job — becomes, within a few scenes…a seriously bad idea! Which kind of makes the audience go: What’s the point? The whole premise of “Another Round” seemed to be to treat all-day imbibing in a teasingly “positive” way. Once it becomes clear that that’s not going to work out, the film has nowhere to go but into the cautionary-melodrama zone. It turns into a movie about what happens to four men who drink too much.
At his best, I’m a major fan of Mads Mikkelsen, but here, reteaming with Vinterberg for the first time since 2013’s “The Hunt” (in which the actor also played a troubled teacher), he has a remote, placid, overly unruffled quality. Fighting to hold onto his marriage, Martin doesn’t show any special urgency; he seems dull to himself. Yet Mikkelsen’s big jazz ballet scene at the end is terrific — it has all the life force the movie itself should have had.
The problem with “Another Round” is that it only pretends to possess what the films of the Swedish director Ruben Östlund — who has a lot of Dogme in his blood — do: a social awareness, a hint that the conundrum on display reflects a larger hunger in the culture. The film makes reference, at one point, to Denmark having a serious drinking problem, but you want to say: What country doesn’t? “Another Round” expresses nothing, really, beyond the eternal idea that contemporary middle-class life contains pockets of deadness that may, in order to get through them, require some stimulants. (That was old news in the “Mad Men” era.) A movie that’s this arduous in its obviousness can make you want to reach for a drink.