Martin is – stop me if you’ve heard this before in a film plot summary – a middle aged, middle class man who is experiencing a mid-life crisis. He’s a teacher, but whereas he was once an up-and-coming Bright Young thing, he is now mediocre at best. His kids call a meeting with him to tell him that they’re worried that he stays teaching them, they won’t pass their exams (what sort of schoolkids do they have in Denmark?)
At home, things are little better. He’s married with a regulation number of kids, but he and his wife rarely see each other because of her shift work, but even when they’re together they barely talk. He asks her if he’s become boring, and she’s a little evasive with her answer, noting that she misses “us”.
One evening, he goes to the birthday party of a teaching colleague. It’s hardly a storming affair, just four ageing men, eating and drinking together. One brings up the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who believed that to achieve maximum happiness, people should maintain a Blood Alcohol level of 0.05% at all times. In layman’s terms, 0.05% translates as being a bit pissed.
So, in the name of research, a project is born. The friends agree to test the validity of Skårderud’s theory and start smuggling vodka into school. To make sure that things don’t get out of time, they add the Ernest Hemingway rule – no drinking after 8pm or at week-ends. You don’t want to be waking up unable to function, do you?
The effect, especially on Martin, is remarkable. Suddenly his history levels become interesting again, and he engages his students, not least with his stories of famous alcoholics from Churchill to Ulysses S Grant. His mates achieve similar levels of success teaching sport, psychology and music (there really is a bit too much choral singing in this film for comfort).
Satisfied with the success of stage 1 of the experiment, they move to stage 2. If a blood alcohol level of 0.05% makes them this effective, one of 0.1% must be twice as good, right? Suddenly they are scampering around like schoolboys, mixing their interaction with each other between dancing and play fights. Martin even starts to have a meaningful relationship with his wife.
Needless to say, it doesn’t last. Prancing around drunkenly may be acceptable for young men (but then again…). For people with families and responsibilities it is less becoming, especially when you start pissing the bed and waking up in a state of incomprehension. There are some lovely slapstick performances, not least when a pissed Martin waltzes through the staff room avoiding bumping into anyone before he comes crashing into a door frame.
The film is neither moralistic not euphoric about the men’s drinking, which is both a benefit and a drawback. It is great that it doesn’t turn into a sermon, but what is it trying to say, exactly? That drinking alcohol is good … until it isn’t? Now that may well be true, but it’s hardly revelatory. For all the talk of Skårderud and Kierkegaard, the film actually has very little to say.
Ultimately, the film is held together by solid ensemble acting, which keeps us engaged throughout. If the stories are to be believed, director Thomas Vinterberg insisted on the method approach of keeping his actors pissed, so that its arguable whether some of what we are witnessing is real acting. But all the more credit for the balletic sequences, not least from former dancer Mads Mikkelsen.
Ultimately, though, you feel slightly cheated. Vinterberg came to fame on the back of the Dogme 95 movement, which prided itself (sometimes a little too much) on its provocation. And yet much of it is too staid, too much just another tale of inadequate men, and God knows, we get enough of this. Nonetheless, the acting and the willingness to take the occasional risk puts it ahead of most of the competition. Not world-shattering, but well worth a see.