PLOT: Four friends set out on a drinking experiment in hopes it will have positive effects on their social and professional lives, which of course sounds like a good idea.
REVIEW: On this side of the Atlantic, casual viewers likely know actor Mads Mikkelsen from a handful of roles, such as La Chiffre in Casino Royale, Kaecilius in Doctor Strange, and his work as Hannibal Lecter in the series Hannibal, in which he is so good it stands toe-to-toe with Anthony Hopkins’ iconic take. But while roles in these projects have made great use of his alluring, stoic intensity, I fear that most viewers have yet to truly witness how incredible a leading man he really is. My hope is that his new movie, ANOTHER ROUND (or Druk, in Danish) from his native Denmark, changes all that. Not only is it some of Mikkelsen’s very best work to date and demands to be seen by everyone, but also his remarkable performance anchors an often sobering, ultimately life-affirming toast to life and all its ups and downs that feels like a perfect way to end a year like this.
Reuniting him with director Thomas Vinterberg, the two of them last working together on 2012’s The Hunt (also must-see work from the pair), Mikkelsen plays Martin, a middle-aged school teacher going through a severe mid-life crisis, which essentially makes this his most relatable role yet. His confidence is gone, his lessons seem aimless, and the divide between him and his wife gets larger and larger as he fears he’s become, in his words, boring. His three friends/co-workers – Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) – aren’t fairing much better, dealing with varying degrees of a mid-life slump, but that’s only until Martin kicks off a plan designed to get them back in the spirit of having any spirit. The plan? Get routinely shitfaced and record their findings in a scholarly paper meant to analyze the theory by psychiatrist Finn Skårderud that having a constant 0.050 blood alcohol level is actually good for you. That may sound like a red flag more than a good idea, but it’s all in the name of, you know, science and stuff.
While this sounds like a perfect formula for a hard-R party flick from a major Hollywood studio starring any assortment of actors who have appeared in a sitcom, Vinterberg’s directorial approach and script (co-written with Tobias Lindholm) favor the human element that drives these men to think stashing booze wherever they can around work will make them better at life. And the truth of the matter is, it does at the start. With a little vodka in the tank, Martin is energetic in class and actually communicates with his wife for once, and the others are getting more out of their students than ever before. Not to mention that around each other they’re just more jovial. They’re acting like the rambunctious teens who, at the start of the film, are cheering each other on during the booze-laden Lake Race and causing playful chaos on the train. There is a genuine spark coming back into their lives and watching this ensemble mess with each other is its own tonic for tiring times.
As much as the movie includes the four men in the storytelling, this is Mikkelsen’s show to own, and both he and Vinterberg are in perfect sync with who Martin is and what all this means for him. In the beginning, Martin is clearly zapped of all joy in life, and part of him recognizes that, but the struggle with confronting it is perhaps doing more harm for him than good. He doesn’t want to give up, but he has. What’s so absorbing about Mikkelsen’s work is how much of this he lets stew under the surface, constantly trying to keep depression buried deep down, but is ultimately incapable of stopping it from bubbling to the top. He loses his train of thought in class, he’s obviously distant from his family at dinner, and he can’t initially engage with his friends when at Nikolaj’s 40th birthday dinner. But it’s here where the tragedy of where his life is at comes to the surface, where after that partly dangerous/partly triumphant first drink goes down, does Mikkelsen let trickle out all that pain and sadness. This dinner sequence in particular is a masterclass, watching Mikkelsen slowly evolve Martin’s subtle physicality from repressed emotion to needed release. And right there with him are his buds, who get him to finally smile (and drink more) by recalling fond memories and making fools of themselves. It’s a wrenching, ultimately cathartic experience.
When they do kick things into high gear, there are numerous sequences that are pure hilarity, and all thanks to the superb physical comedy of the four men. In Mikkelsen’s case, he gets to show off humor and warmth he doesn’t get to with his roles as a villain in blockbuster movies, and it becomes very clear very quickly that he’s an absolute delight. Larsen, Ranthe and Millang are great too, and this why when they do begin their adventures in drinking you can’t help but root for them; you want to root for them and hope they get to the points they need to in order to feel happy again. However, the very nature of the story and script make it obvious about what’s to come down the road, and soon the themes of alcoholism begin to have a heavy presence, peeling back the layers of how what may start off innocently, understandably enough, inevitably takes that dark turn.
Moments of levity make way for moments of anger and new lows – swings of which ebb and flow at too great of heights at times. As fun as the movie can be, Vinterberg doesn’t let you forget this is a story about men sinking down to the bottom of the bottle. In terms of pacing, he’s trying to get as close to what being an alcoholic feels like (or what I imagine) — immense highs, lower lows. This analysis works much better when it’s centered on Martin, and the other three don’t get more than a scene or so between them to drive home the negative effects of what it’s doing to their lives.
As depressing as some of the later beats very much are, this is ultimately a story about figuring out how to confront life head-on, and despite what new challenges this may present, celebrating it through all its ups and downs. And in the case of all the booze, it just proves that sometimes no amount of drink and good times in the world can stop the inevitable changes of life, and perhaps even speeds them up. While that pacing and tonal shifting may not be everyone’s drink of choice, I personally walked away mostly responding more to the wonderful, invigorating moments designed to be as warm as that first swig of champagne. Anchoring all those moments – along with the sobering ones – is a masterful Mikkelsen performance that’s intoxicating from beginning to end, with that very end being one of such profound joy (making use of the actor’s dance training) that I don’t think any of you are ready for.