Film Review – The Death of Stalin
The Death of Stalin
Armando Iannucci‘s biting new film, The Death of Stalin, is the funniest story centering around a brutal dictator you’re likely to see this side of Springtime For Hitler. Iannuci is no stranger to unsettling political satire (In The Loop, Veep), and I knew from my first guffaw at minute one that I was once again in good hands here.
1953, Moscow. After a series of frenetic circumstances surrounding the urgent recording of a Mozart program and a bitter, smuggled note to the infamous leader, Stalin drops dead of a brain hemorrhage/stroke. (Historical spoilers.) From there we’re treated to 90 plus minutes of hilarious undercutting, scrambling and power wielding on the part of his obnoxious (and remarkably well-cast) staff.
A rogue’s gallery of character actors makes up this maliciously motley crew, each having time to shine in their attempts to upend one another. There’s secretary chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the hilariously weasely deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and party secretary Nikita Khrushchev, with Steve Buscemi looking like it’s the most fun he’s had in years.
Between funeral arrangements, the tried taming of Stalin’s son, and innumerous other atrocities both minor and major, you may find yourself struggling for who to root for as their plans are as hapless as their barbs are stinging. But of course that’s half the fun.
And therein lies the appeal of any Iannuci project. His gift for profanity borders on art. I must have embarrassed my plus one with the frequency of my laughter during this screening, but could not relay for you now, 2 days later, a single line of dialogue. Anything Iannuci touches becomes a rapid fire joke machine so relentless you just have to lay back, arms behind your head, and allow yourself to just get swept up in the foulmouthed whirlwind of it all.
For those with even a passing familiarity of the rise and fall of Stalin, it might seem dicey to center a raunchy comedy around his direct colleagues. And to be sure, there is a healthy dose of shady back room handshakes and murder interspersed between the jokes, which Iannuci wisely keeps mainly on the outskirts of the screen. Whether they view themselves as such or not, these 3 men are sadistic in their dealings and goals. The reprehensibility is then well-matched with the film’s idea of them as posturing, snake oil salesmen who view themselves as wise while we get to watch them stooge it up behind the curtain, scene after scene.
It is of course impossible to watch such a mean-spirited depiction of politics without maybe, sort of, I don’t know, thinking about a certain, possibly current administration. (Veep, of course, stands as the vanguard of the genre, but there is something extra special about 1950’s dignitaries dropping “motherf***ers” like a motherf***ker.) And the timing of The Death of Stalin certainly suggests this isn’t an accident or coincidence. But hell, if we’re all going down anyway, why not seek out a few laughs on the sidelines. Stalin delivers them in spades.