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Another round: Exploring sadness and life through alcohol

Apparently, each year, there’s a study that determines the “happiest” country in the world; I found that notion absurd. How can you objectively determine that? Obviously, there are many factors that theoretically contribute to one’s wellbeing and prospects in life – like low unemployment rates, a high GDP of a country, statistical data surrounding subjects that lead to happiness, etc. – but I take umbrage to the notion that happiness is an objective truth that can be attributed to people meeting a threshold on certain criteria; on a completely unrelated note, I had just seen Another round the night before and the movie was still very fresh and prominent in my thoughts. As always with these types of articles, I’ll go over what I liked and disliked about the movie, but that won’t be the focus; instead, I want to focus on how the movie uses the consumption of alcohol and its effects to explore midlife crisis (or more accurately midlife depression) alongside alcoholism, and how that made me feel about the subject matter.

Another round was co-written and directed by Thomas Vinterberg, and stars Mads Mikkelsen alongside Thomas Bo Larsen, Magnus Millang, and Lars Ranthe. It follows a group of four friends and high school teachers as they begin an experiment of testing out a hypothesis of keeping a consistent alcohol level throughout the day will improve your everyday life. This is a stellar dramedy and it is by far one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The writing is phenomenal, the characterization is so good I needed to take a break from my own writing for a couple of days and let my brain forget some of the details so I can feel good about what I write, the acting is beyond awe-inspiring not only from Mikkelsen (who continues to be one of the best actors of our time) but also from the relatively unknown cast (in particular Bo Larsen). It’s poignant, but it is also riveting in its execution of drama and comedy, which happens simultaneously in most scenes; even the soundtrack is perfectly chosen for each scene and complements the movie so well. My only gripe with it is that visually it doesn’t feel “distinct” enough, despite creating some beautiful images with the Danish landscapes and cities, but also doing the impossible of making mundane and common places look extremely beautiful; what I mean by “distinct” is that I never felt like any one scene/moment from this movie felt like it was unique in how it was presented, but that is such a nitpick I feel embarrassed writing it. Besides that small blemish in its armor, Another round is an extremely interesting movie that I connected with immediately and started over thinking it (as I am prone to do), so I wanted to discuss the parts that spoke to me the most; if its not obvious, there’s going to be a ton of spoilers for the whole movie from this point forward, so just watch the movie it really is that good and come back after!

Let’s set the standard first: What is the midlife crisis the movie wants to explore? First off, my grammar is wrong here because its not one crisis; its four crises explored from the perspective of each friend. Martin (Mikkelsen) is suffering from a crisis of self-confidence; he’s estranged from his wife, his kids, he clearly loves the subject he is teaching but lacks the fervor to do it well, and he can’t allow himself to be “genuine” even in front of his friends. Nikolaj (Millang) is suffering a similar crisis, but one born out of fear of what his life may become; as a father to three still young children, he sees his life starting to become a piss-filled routine of nurturing, arguing, and slowly turning into mundane and uninteresting, bereft of nights out and fun like it used to be. Peter (Ranthe) is suffering from a crisis of legacy; he has no children of his own, he becomes awkward when a romantic interest pops up, and he also clearly struggles to make an impact as a musical teacher to his students, despite his unquestionable love of the medium. Lastly, there is Thomas (Bo Larsen) who suffers from a crisis of self-care; he is a gym teacher who also coaches a young football team, who is clearly the “crazy” one of the group, without any real ambitions or care for his own wellbeing or progress – he simply wants to party and get up to shenanigans.

Where the effects of alcohol come in is where things get interesting, specifically in the duality of reactions from Martin and Thomas. Martin’s life starts becoming more bearable and he gets so much better at his professional and personal life; his students, who at the beginning scolded him and tried to get him removed from his position due to his indifference and low effort, now have Dead Poet’s Society styled classes with cheering and complete focus on the subject, which has now become interesting and fun. This is also where we get the understanding of how fascinated the movie is with alcohol; several examples of prominent historical figures are woven into the narrative who were influential in world history for the better, while they were black out drunk or outright alcoholics. Alongside his professional resurgence, Martin also starts enjoying his personal life again, reconnecting with his wife and kids, being more confident and forthcoming, communicating better, and finding the energy to come up with solutions and actions to save his marriage, rather than watch it passively wither. Thomas, on the other hand, starts becoming visibly unhinged; while the other characters are shown to be very careful in how they measure their blood levels and how they deal with drinking at school, Thomas is anything but careful. He gets his stash exposed almost immediately, he is not that careful about maintaining an alcohol level (he is consistently drinking though) and even replaced the water in his water bottle with alcohol in a scene that could have ended with an 8-year-old getting black out drunk.

Before I go on into my “thesis”, I want to acknowledge something: This is not a movie about 4 friends being black out drunk and the comedy that ensues from that or an outright warning about alcohol and its dangerous attributes. There are great elements of both extremes in this movie, but Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm wanted to something more; something different. According to Vinterberg himself (https://www.goldderby.com/feature/thomas-vinterberg-another-round-oscar-video-interview-transcript-1204142785/), alcohol is the engine that drives the story and the means by which it explores friendship and life in a certain point, where routine and plans stop having curiosities and risks. Personally, I stopped drinking alcohol beyond a couple of units since a long time ago and don’t necessarily condone how the movie depicts the substance, but I also don’t think it is harmful or less sensitive on the subject either; despite our difference in opinions, I actually think there is more nuance in this movie’s depiction of alcohol than most other movies I’ve seen with that subject being the focus. In all cases, showing just the negatives or positives of something condenses the various elements to their most basic form and rejects the audience a chance to actually interact with a difficult subject; alcohol is a substance that can lead to addiction and destroy lives, but so do many things in life and exploring that in a satisfying and meaningful way rarely comes down to “don’t do it”.

So, how do the characters, their crises, alcohol, and midlife sadness, interact in the movie? I chose Martin and Thomas to showcase the duality of reactions to alcohol, because I think their stories are the most interesting to explore – which is not to suggest that Peter and Nikolaj are less interesting, because they are not, but if I don’t want to write a novel-length article, I have to limit myself! Martin’s sadness is shown as stemming from his passiveness in recent years; he makes no effort to appeal to his students, his children and wife are unaware of his presence and don’t care about his schedule, his own friends lament the time he was a go-getter – someone who was going to get a grand for research and a PhD, a dancer. At Nikolaj’s 40th birthday dinner, he rejects the notion of even having one drink to toast to his best friend, and being confronted with that reality of him being boring and passive, he breaks down and shows the first signs of depression. After Nikolaj mentions the theory of a Norwegian psychiatrist about alcohol, Martin is at a point in his life where if he does not act, if he does not drop his guard and shows that he cares, he will lose everything he worked for; alcohol allows him to find the desire and the means to act. However, alcohol cannot reverse time and the damage was already done; his wife is cheating on him, and his desires to relive the adolescence freedom he used to enjoy lead him (and his friends) down a path that costs them dearly. Martin is sad because he wasted his best years compromising and being comfortable in a situation that worked for him, and regardless of how much he does now those years and what he will lose because of that will never come back.

Meanwhile, Thomas has a very different kind of sadness; it is that of a person who did not grow alongside others and desire what others do. While Martin and Nikolaj have families and Peter’s crisis is about him not having a legacy to leave behind and to cultivate, Thomas seems uninterested in those things; he clearly loves his friends and is good with children (when he’s careful around them), but he seems to be more interested in having fun. He causes a ruckus at Nikolaj’s dinner, and as soon as Martin’s little tandem stops, he starts dancing in this high-class restaurant. When the other guys start this experiment, he joins without really thinking about it and never stops, which eventually leads to his fatal accident. However, the interesting aspect of Thomas’s character (with huge props to Bo Larsen for portraying him in such an interesting way) is that he too goes on the same arc as the rest of the group; his life does get better. He becomes a better coach and celebrates genuinely when his team wins, he seems a lot happier by the mid-point of the movie than from the beginning; his sadness is less about how he sees his life and more about how contrary it runs to societal expectations. If you are happy partying and getting up to (mostly) harmless shenanigans and don’t really care about what you do or professional success, is that a healthy and happy aspiration to have?

At this point, I could go on for 5x the length of what I’ve already written and explored of this movie into subjects and themes the movie is clearly more vocal in. Themes of friendship, freedom, and living life to the full despite what has come before are concepts that can have equally in-depth articles discussing them in terms of the movie’s approach to them. However, my personal affinity and interest came in these bittersweet moments and the depiction of these middle-aged men and their underlying sadness. It is important to note though, Vinterberg’s intention (there are many interviews online that detail them) was never really to have a message on these themes; his intention was to make a movie about life’s uncontrollable nature and about not allowing yourself to feel pity about what has happened and what has been wasted, because you can always restart with the right push. Which is where the brilliant dancing sequence at the end (where Mads Mikkelsen’s 9 years as a professional dancer came handy) becomes a beautiful tie to wrap the movie up in; it is a reflection of Martin’s character (https://deadline.com/2020/12/another-round-mads-mikkelsen-thomas-vinterberg-interview-video-1234654882/), but it is also a joyful and lively moment to end a sad afternoon on, while beginning a reinvigorated life.

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