Leonardo DiCaprio just nabbed the rights to make an English-language version of the terrific Oscar-winning Danish film Another Round. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s about four middle-aged men who rejuvenate their increasingly dull lives by drinking just enough to stay buzzed all day, every day. DiCaprio plans to star in the lead role played in the original by the incomparable Mads Mikkelsen.
This news has led to some spirited online demands that, in exchange, Mads Mikkelsen be allowed to star in a Danish remake of Titanic or The Wolf of Wall Street. But at any rate, you’ve been warned. You’ll have plenty of time to watch the Danish version of the film with the Mikkelsen performance, currently playing on Hulu and Amazon Prime, and to remind yourself not to watch the American version when it comes out. It will be terrible.
Why will it be terrible?
Because there is no way an American film is going to be able to adopt the refreshing attitude taken by Another Round director Thomas Vinterberg and his creative team, which they summed up with the phrase, “No moralizing!”
But moralizing is what we do best in the USA. Moralizing “R” Us. You have to wonder what the American version of the film will do with the scene in which a teacher whose life has been improved by alcohol urges a high school student suffering from intense exam anxiety to drink a shot or two before the big test.
Another Round follows four burned-out, middle-aged high school teachers who decide to help each other reengage with life by participating in a crackpot experiment based on a claim supposedly made by Danish psychiatrist Finn Skårderud. Skårderud argued that human beings have what amounts to a 0.05 deficiency in blood alcohol content (BAC). Therefore, they should probably drink to make up for the loss of alcohol’s more positive effects — the ability to relax, overcome social inhibition, and readily engage with others.
The catalyst for this experiment is the sudden, manifest despair of Martin, the Mads Mikkelsen character. We learn that he’s been resigned for years to a passive half-life in a job that he’s long since lost all interest in and a marriage that’s quietly falling apart. His excruciatingly boring and confusing history lessons eventually lead to an ambush from angry parents at an after-school conference, a humiliating wake-up call for Martin. School administrators then step in: changes will have to be made.
Later, Martin’s friends, who all teach at the same school, meet for dinner and, in a misguided attempt to help him, discuss how and why he’s failing. “I think you lack confidence. And joy,” says Nikolaj (Magnus Millang).
The dinner is in honor of Nicolaj’s birthday and features a lot of fancy foods and exotic alcoholic beverages. Martin tries to abstain from drinking, but his friends begin to talk about him as the one among them who once had the brightest future — plans for a PhD and a university career — as well as the most daring attitude toward life embodied in his youthful dedication to “jazz ballet” dancing. Hearing all this, Martin starts compulsively gulping down drinks.
This is twenty minutes into the film, and there’s Martin suddenly in tears. All his friends are stricken. You’ll be stricken, too, because Mikkelsen is so effective at performing that most heartbreaking of behaviors, the long-frozen emotions suddenly thawing and bursting out at the worst time — in public, on a special occasion, with friends whose concern only makes it more painful.
Soon the friends are solemnly day drinking and writing up notes on the effects of strictly maintaining 0.05 percent BAC, with the intent of publishing an academic paper on the experiment. They commit themselves to drinking during work hours but stopping at 8 PM, because that was writer Ernest Hemingway’s rule, and he managed to get a lot done.
The effects, at first, are excellent — comically so. It all seems so easy. Martin is able to reignite his moribund relationships with his wife and kids, and all four teachers experience marked improvement in their abilities to present course material inventively in ways that engage the students. They rediscover their basic empathy and become far more responsive to their students’ difficulties and concerns. And they actually begin to enjoy teaching again for the first time in many years.
Vinterberg admits that his initial goal for the film was to make it a celebration of liquor, which would include scenes considering Great Drinkers Throughout History, people who achieved a lot while wasted. Some of that material is in the final film and is unfortunately one of the weaker aspects because of the choice of historical figures, especially Martin’s repeated tributes to the appalling Winston Churchill, a noted sot who liked to brag, “I never drink before breakfast.”
Upon further consideration, Vinterberg decided there was no honest way to dodge the downsides of drinking — the hangovers, the messy side effects even of relatively low ingestion rates, such as impaired mobility and judgment, slurred speech, and vomiting. And of course, there’s the serious danger of addiction, with the resulting toll taken on bodies, mental functions, jobs, relationships, and lives.
When the 0.05 percent BAC works so well for the four friends, the temptation to drink more is overwhelming, and soon they’ve agreed to raise the level up to 0.10 percent, and from that to all-out binge-drinking. It’s worth noting that the Danish title of the film, Druk, means “binge drinking,” a far less lyrical title than the soft English one, Another Round.
Even with the “No moralizing!” rule in place, it seems inevitable that one of the four friends succumbs to alcoholism, the lonely and cantankerous Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen). Though the consequences of the experiment are piling up on all of them, he can’t stop when the others do.
But Vinterberg isn’t interested in considering alcoholism as the great crisis of the movie — he’s not making an updated version of The Lost Weekend (1945). For Vinterberg, the real crisis is the terrible state of death-in-life, a benumbed condition so extreme that the person suffering it can’t recognize it as depression or despair and goes plodding along for years or even decades passively enduring his existence. Martin and Tommy are already in this crisis state at the start of the film, and the other two friends Nikolaj and Peter (Lars Ranthe) are in danger of sliding into it.
It’s a highly recognizable state that any teacher, and virtually any worker, should be able to regard as a mirror of their own condition, or at least warning representation of peril. Though the film doesn’t explicitly underscore the way teachers are part of a labor force being driven to perform and produce beyond any reasonably healthy standard, it’s clear that sheer exhaustion is a big part of what’s destroying the lives of the main characters. Mikkelsen’s heavy lids and stiff, rusty movements all attest to a kind of permanent fatigue.
It’s what makes the end of the film so thrilling, when we see his crisis narrowly averted in a burst of improvised movement, Mikkelsen’s much-discussed “jazz ballet” dance of joy breaking through pain. In an interview with Vinterberg and Mikkelsen, director Guillermo del Toro said he found the scene so cathartic, he felt compelled to jump to his feet:
It’s one of the few times in my life when I was watching a movie, and I stood up. . . . It’s a lot for my weight to stand up! . . . And I said, “Oh, this is pure life!”
And you’re not going to get a much better film recommendation than that.
It’s marvelous to see Martin rewarded and joyful at the end, when his estranged wife texts him very fondly, in a way that pretty clearly indicates they’re going to get back together. This is the opposite of the American popular film tendency to punish “sinners,” and it’ll be interesting and possibly infuriating to see how Leonardo DiCaprio’s version handles it.
And also to see if DiCaprio can dance even half as wonderfully as Mikkelsen.