Another Round

Another Round ★★★★

There hasn't really been a good generational comedy about alcoholism like this since Sideways, a film that captured the mid-life mileu with a perfunctory, yet melancholic, toast to being old. In Sideways, Alexander Payne draws a great metaphor with wine; sometimes humans just need a little age to uncork.

In Vinterberg's strange and off-kilter portrait of four men, metaphor doesn't necessarily fit into it. Vinterberg elides metaphor in most of his work. He's an unusually direct and controversial author, who treads into the experiential. With a bit more symmetry and social commentary, you might see something that resembles his Scandinavian colleague Ruben Ostlünd's work. When the fantastic Lars Ranthe, as the unlikely ringleader, utters "force majeure" when escalating the stakes of his experiment - how much can the group raise their alcohol blood level while retaining a level of professionalism - the influence comes full circle.

If there was a metaphor lurking behind this very likeable comedy, it might be that the guiding forces leading our children into the future are all driven by a stupor of excess that isn't dissimilar to an alcoholic's obsession with the drink. Western civilization, as a whole, has been on a self-destructive consumption binge since the the Cold War and there really hasn't been much in the way to stop it all.

In fact, there's been a tacit agreement amongst the wealthier countries to continue along its sloppy way, with the implicit promise that things just don't go too far. Testing the limits of excess has been an interesting, yet abominable experiment. The highest educated countries in the world just so happen to be the highest consuming. So it's a rather apt decision for Vinterberg to set this in a school.

It seems as though just because a country can read doesn't necessarily mean it can also learn how to curb its addiction.

When Mads Mikkelsen forces his class of teens to choose between a man who consulted his astrologer and had polio (F.D.R.), a man who drank copiously and loved a good cigar (Winston Churchill), and a vegetarian and non-drinker (Adolf Hitler) to lead the world in the height of the war, it's obviously a loaded question (no pun intended). But the children all make the sober choice.

It seems as though, Vinterberg points out, the politics can be separate from the personal. How we behave in our everyday doesn't necessarily resemble our inclination towards power. The irony, of course, is that it's all to justify Martin's own predilection towards day drinking, while subconsciously condoning it to his pupils. The personal does become the political.

And here, I think, is the nucleus of what makes First Round so anti-cliché. The "inspired teacher" who brings his students to enlightenment (a la Monsieur Lazhar) is ridiculed, without it feeling like Vinterberg is ridiculing. This is what Vinterberg does better as he gets older. He takes people and puts them in impossible situations where they make the wrong choices and you still root for them.

It's kind of like Cassavetes' brilliant romp Husbands (+1 guy), but imagine following those characters back to the doldrum of their 9 to 5s. It's about work requiring a necessary escape, but also about that escape becoming a kind of methodological work for them. They approach it as if they're teaching a class. Even their escape becomes an extension of the depressed state.

In that, it's actually one of the saddest buddy comedies of recent time. Where World's End is a hilarious tribute to four friends losing touch with their adolescence and attempting to rekindle it over one night (sans consequence), Another Round is all about the personal responsibility that lies with regression. I'd argue Another Round is funnier and more complex than the former example because of it. In a hilarious scene where Magnus Millang awakes to his baby pissing on him, it's funny because he's hungover and sad because he's a father with valuable cargo (it’s also a subtle jab at the baby-toting and bearded Galifinakis in the alcoholic weekend hit, The Hangover).

Vinterberg indicts these men as vessels for the cornerstones of the Western social sciences (Physical Education, Politics/History, Music and Philosophy). Not coincidentally, there is an omission of the "logical" teachers: science/math. And even less coincidentally, these men teach the departments that are usually the first on the cutting block when it comes to budget cuts.

But perhaps the most absurd and hilarious authorial choice is having four men teaching K-12 school, a field of work that is heavily predominated by women (about 78% of school teachers are women in the U.S. and about 2/3rds in Denmark).Given the gender distribution of these roles in Denmark, let alone that of four men in one school, the narrative  becomes a farce. I don't think we're supposed to believe this story is literal despite its very literal approach.
In that way, Another Round becomes an interesting case study as to why we shouldn't trust men in these positions.

Despite the farcical premise, Vinterberg develops his characters with great precision, with each one pushing themselves more forward into their id state. We reach unconsciousness. The excess becomes too much for even them. We want to root for them to succeed, but at what? To drink to see another day? The film speaks to our inherent need to inspire each other, but also enable. We can't help it. There is a commitment to commitment amongst these men. And when these characters want to do the right thing, our heart sinks at the thought of him not getting blackout drunk. What is it in us that wants to see the destruction of others?

Leading up to the exams, the script sets up the stakes with title cards that resemble MADD commercials. Vinterberg's style is intoxicating, but his mastery of tone is even moreso. Here is a film that punishes its characters, but we love to see it. Not because we don't like the characters, but because Vinterberg writes them with vulnerability, but also a fuckload of pride. As alcohol does, it gives them this sense of indestructibility. It truly is like being drunk. We get this beautiful rich contemplation of the world when you're 3 glasses in and then the obstinate treachery of a bottle down. You want to root for the armchair philosopher with a glass of brandy, you want to kick out the drunkard who reeks of vodka.

Vinterberg creates this pull and push relationship with his characters. He doesn't admonish drinking, nor does he celebrate it. It's always this brilliant fine line that he constructs. He walks it gently and with great comedic effect. We don't know whether these characters are going to spill their guts or hold in them the emotions that they've been repressing their entire lives. At a time when drinking is on an unhealthy rise in most parts of the world, it's really refreshing to have a sober outlook on our relationship with excess.

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