Most films about alcohol are not really about alcohol. They’re about the horrors of addiction or unresolved psychological baggage or getting utterly shitfaced on the last night before graduation. Thomas Vinterberg’s new narrative feature, Another Round, doesn’t completely break from this tradition. At bottom, it concerns four middle-age men and their suffocating discontent about the dreary lives into which they’ve unwittingly settled. However, the film comes closer than any feature in memory to bluntly examining the complicated relationship human beings have with alcoholic beverages. It is about alcohol in a nuanced, proximal way that boozy films ranging from The Lost Weekend (1945) to Withnail And I (1987) to The Hangover (2009) never really manage (or even attempt).

Danish writer-director Vinterberg – a Lars von Trier confrere and co-founder of the Dogme 95 artistic movement – has had some creative ups and downs since his 1998 Cannes breakout, The Celebration. However, his recent work evinces a refined sensitivity to the complexities of character, a trait evident in his “wrongfully accused” feature The Hunt (2012) and his splendid adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (2015). Another Round is Vinterberg’s most thoughtful drama in years, a film that is keenly attuned to humanity’s ugly fallibility, absent the scabrous, misanthropic qualities of The Celebration. It tells a humane, poignant story with great affection for people and the dumb, obvious mistakes they make. It downplays neither the liberating joys of drinking nor alcohol’s potential to devastate careers, relationships, and lives.

The four men at the center of Another Round are longtime friends, all of them teachers at the same Copenhagen secondary school (a Gymnasium in Danish parlance). Each man has a different flavor of home life. History teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen, who also starred in The Hunt) has a professional wife who works nights and two teenage sons, none of whom seem to pay him much notice. Psychology teacher Peter (Lars Ranthe) is also married – to a wealthy, beautiful woman whom he acknowledges is far out of his league – with three very young children. Music teacher Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) is single and on the prowl for nubile substitute instructors. Physical-education teacher Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) is divorced, his only companion being an old, ailing dog.

What unites these characters is their profound sense of dissatisfaction, which generally manifests as self-pity. During a birthday dinner for Peter, Martin abruptly breaks down after a shot of vodka and a glass of wine, fighting back tears as he wonders aloud what has happened to the vibrant man he used to be and why he feels so unhappy. (Though all four leads are in fine form, this scene is an early indication of how riveting Mikkelsen’s performance will prove to be, and how essential his talents are to the story’s potency.) Peter later brings up the work of Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who theorizes that humans are happiest and at their creative optimum when their blood alcohol concentration is 0.05%. This inspires Martin, who attempts to surreptitiously maintain an alcohol buzz during the subsequent school day, to pleasant effect.

Soon all four men are participating in this “social experiment,” devising a set of rules – e.g., no drinking after 8 p.m. – and various tricks to enable constant, low-level day-drinking. (Peter tracks their hypotheses and methods in a document that gives the whole scheme a convenient gloss of both playfulness and academic rigor.) Initially, the results of their boozy little conspiracy are positive, especially for Martin, who rediscovers his creative spark in the classroom and his general zest for life. Tommy is more invested in the success of the young players on his peewee soccer team. Nikolaj tries some new approaches in his vocal class and reaches out to a student suffering from anxiety over his examinations. All four men feel more content, confident, and alive than they have in years.

Naturally, this honeymoon does not last. With dispiriting predictability, the men eventually rationalize chasing a more potent version of the sensation that has invigorated their normally gloomy routines. Specifically, they increase the target blood alcohol level to 0.1%. They bring breathalyzers to school to track their buzz and start stashing bottles and flasks everywhere. Apart from some near misses in concealing their drinking from students, teachers, and administrators, this new phase in the experiment seems to be a success. Given how good they feel at 0.1%, the men ultimately take the plunge into outright binge drinking – you know, for the sake of science.

The screenplay by Vinterberg and co-writer Tobias Lindholm is a relatively restrained thing, never explicitly stating what is obvious to the outside observer: The four men are just applying a fig leaf of codified method to the age-old tradition of getting wasted with one’s buddies. “I couldn’t care less if you drink with your friends,” Martin’s exasperated wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), explains. “This entire country drinks like maniacs anyway.” Owing to the framework of the friends’ informal experiment, an activity that is aggressively ordinary – getting drunk in response to a midlife crisis – suddenly feels like something new, cool, and extraordinary. Except that it’s not. It’s just pathetic middle-age souses sliding down the slippery slope from “having a good time” toward addiction, humiliation, and dissolution. It’s no coincidence that Churchill and Hemingway are repeatedly name-checked – both men being exemplars of the myth that habitual drinkers are towers of strength, creativity, and masculinity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, chronic drinking widens the fissures that were already present in the lives of the four men. Martin’s exuberance at first rubs off on his family, who respond positively to his change in character, but it’s just an ill-fitting mask concealing two decades of zombified negligence. Peter’s sense of emasculation intensifies, Nikolaj takes some frightening risks, and Tommy’s sad-sack loneliness threatens to consume him. Another Round twirls euphorically on the broad, fuzzy line between alcohol as an ecstatic lubricant and alcohol as a catalyst for ruin. Is drinking the problem? Or does it just expose and exacerbate deeper, more intractable problems?

Ultimately, the film regards its characters’ inevitable fall as both stupidly predictable and entirely of their own making. Indeed, the banality of their drunken downward spiral is what makes it so absurdly tragic. They behave as if they had discovered some esoteric secret to happiness rather than a mass-produced organic chemical that generates $1 trillion a year globally. However, Another Round also pointedly refuses to endorse the notion that sobriety is an innately moral state, positing that there’s a damn good reason humanity has been fermenting sugars since the Neolithic period: Life is short and miserable, and it feels good to be buzzed.

Although the film never shies away from the mortifying, piss-soaked aftermath of excessive drinking, it also presents drunkenness as a legitimate sensual and social pleasure, rather than a false high. As he did in the The Hunt, Vinterberg relies primarily on handheld camera work, with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen obviously but effectively varying the degree of wobble to reflect the characters’ level of inebriation. (Viewers who take their own sobriety seriously may find Another Round potentially triggering, especially if they have had past struggles with addiction.)

To an American viewer, the film’s cultural context will no doubt feel slightly unfamiliar. Unlike other Scandinavian nations, Denmark never had a significant temperance or prohibition movement. Given that it takes place in a country where 16-year-olds can legally buy beer and youth drinking is far more normalized than in the U.S., Another Round almost certainly lands differently for native and international audiences. Yet, intentionally or not, Vinterberg and Lindholm’s script resonates with the distinctly American tension between the Puritan and the libertine, not to mention our taste for easy solutions to complex, difficult challenges.

If the screenplay is what makes Another Round thornier and more interesting than the standard tale of alcoholic excess, Mikkelsen’s marvelous performance is what makes the film downright compelling. The feature tends to center Martin’s viewpoint over that of the other three men, and it’s easy to see why Vinterberg gives his leading man the character with the most fleshed-out life beyond the classroom. It’s uncommon for a film to offer the chiseled, magnetic Mikkelsen a chance to play such a fragile, needy, miserable character, but he proves more than up to the task, walking away with most of the film’s best moments. (There’s a particular scene between Martin and his wife that might have turned into cringe comedy in different hands. Here it feels authentically anguished.) Most appealing of all, the film gives Mikkelsen – a former gymnast and dancer – a chance to show off his jaw-dropping jazz-ballet moves in the film’s coda, a whirlwind celebration that is clearly intended to take the edge off the story’s most tragic turn. For the delightful spectacle of a Champagne-soaked Mikkelsen spinning and vaulting through the air in a suit and tie, Another Round is more than worth the cover charge.

Postscript: It’s worth mentioning an illuminating if grim detail that may partly explain the film’s resolve to end on an uplifting note. Vinterberg’s daughter, Ida, who inspired the screenplay with her anecdotes about teen drinking games, was killed in a car accident just after filming began. Vinterberg thereafter reworked the script, and although we will never see the alternative, the final film feels like a richer, more novel work thanks to its balanced, life-affirming perspective. Another Round is dedicated to Ida’s memory.

Rating: B

Another Round will be available to rent from major online platforms on Dec. 18, 2020.