'The Death of Stalin'
Not everyone can take a tragic political bloodbath out of history and transform it into one of the finest (and funniest) comedies of the year. Not everyone is Armando Iannucci. Beloved by some (mostly British) and tragically lacking name recognition from most, Iannucci is quietly one of the most important voices in comedy of the last 30 years.
From his groundbreaking work on ‘The Day Today’ and ‘Alan Partridge’ in the 1990s, to his political sitcoms (for lack of a better term) ‘The Thick Of It’ in Britain and ‘Veep’ in the less accented North Americas, contemporary comedy simply wouldn’t be the same without Iannucci’s distinct and beautifully bizarre brain. His latest is ‘The Death of Stalin’. That the film both lives up to the title and manages to be bladder emptyingly hilarious is a trick only Iannucci could pull off.
Things kick off in a Russian radio studio in 1953. Classical music is being broadcast and Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin, playing the infamous dictator like a middle school bully) loves it. He calls in to demand a recording. The producer (the always welcome Paddy Considine) agrees in order to avoid being murdered. The only problem? The live broadcast wasn’t actually being recorded. He has to scramble to bribe the musicians into doing it all again, then rush the record over to Stalin hoping that he won’t notice the delay. It’s an absurd display of political power and terrified citizens doing anything to appease their corrupt leaders. That’s just the opening sequence.
We’re then introduced to Stalin’s inner circle, all portrayed by beloved comedy character actors like ‘Monty Python’ vet Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, and the great Steve Buscemi. They essentially goof off like college friends on a bender. They’re just doing it to appease a terrifying master. Then, once Stalin is finally listening to his hastily acquired recording at the end of the night, the leader drops dead. From there, it’s mass panic from the fractured Russian government to decide what to do next, followed swiftly by an intricate weave of messy back-stabbings to seize power, both literal and otherwise.
The most fascinating element of ‘The Death of Stalin’ is the tone. The film is hysterical. Scenes are overflowing with jokes and rich comedic characterizations. However, Iannucci also stays true to the bloody facts and vicious history. Laughs comes layered through pain, kind of like Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ (a very different film in every other way). It’s uncomfortable, cringey, and powerful. The filmmaker never plays on screen violence for laughs. That’s all harsh and brutal to avoid trivializing history. There are moments when side characters get the tragedy and emotional release that the situations demand. Everything else is played for demented laughs, and perhaps that’s fair. After all, beyond the truth at the center of the story, the film is very much about the age old theme of the corruption of power, while also touching on the immature egotistical boys’ club that makes up all political circles regardless of how expensive the suits and important the decisions are. Those themes might be very real, but they’re also complexly absurd. This is a vicious political satire, very much in line with our current unstable times. The period setting just adds enough distance for the laughs to stick.
A huge part of the film’s success on the laugh-o-meter comes down to writing and performance. These might be actual political figures engaging in horrific true life events, but they’re written as petulant man-children and played as such. The sets and costumes might be gorgeously crafted to period, but no one bothers putting on a Russian accent for the sake of authenticity. They all use their own accents, from Palin’s repressed Englishness to Buscemi’s whiny New York twang. Each character represents a certain type of powerful political imbecile. The (allegedly) rapey Jeffrey Tambor is perfectly cast as a professionally subservient idiot who immediately lets a sudden burst of power go to his head in childish ways. Palin delivers his best work since ‘Python’ (or ‘Brazil’) as a quiet man who doesn’t want to draw attention to himself even in the center of government. Jason Isaac steals scenes as a gruff football hooligan version of a bloodthirsty Russian general. Everyone on screen is perfectly cast, especially Buscemi, who delights in befuddled comic mode early on before transferring into something very different in ways few actors could pull off. The movie is a master class of acting, comedic or otherwise. Everyone plays things very real, which makes the absurdist human comedy funnier and ensures that the darker material hits home.
‘The Death of Stalin’ may not be a movie for everyone. Finding this particular story funny requires an ironic distance from the horrors of reality. Thankfully, that ironic distance is practically a required survival mechanism to get out of bed in the morning these days. Those attuned to what Iannucci is saying and giddily entertained by the way the brilliant cast play it will cherish this hilariously bleak satire. It might be a story specific to a distant time and place, but the message and political gallows humor has never been more relevant.
For those who have decided to find a way to laugh as the world burns down around us, ‘The Death of Stalin’ is exactly the bitter little pill that we need right now.