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Film Review: ‘The Death of Stalin’

Mixing verbal fireworks with low-brow gags, Armando Iannucci finds unlikely comedy amid the confusion following the Soviet leader's demise.

Death of Stalin
Courtesy of Toronto Film Festival

Consistently ahead of his time, political satirist and “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci — who forecast a female President that was not to be — has been developing “The Death of Stalin” since long before the current swell of anti-Russian sentiment hit American shores. While it’s unclear whether the country’s recent election-meddling shenanigans will make this defiantly anti-commercial comedy any more appealing to viewers (it seems a stretch), Iannucci certainly deserves credit for even attempting to tackle a movie whose very existence sounds like a joke: If only the end result were as funny as the idea that anyone would undertake a film about the turmoil surrounding the Soviet despot’s demise.

Though sporadically brilliant, this too-often uneven send-up of Russian politics attempts to maintain the rapid-fire, semi-improvisational style of Iannucci’s earlier work — most notably his revolutionary 2009 feature “In the Loop,” still the most delightfully madcap comedy of the last decade — while situating such madness within an elaborately costumed and production-designed period milieu. (As such, the handheld, vaguely mock-doc shagginess of “The Thick of It” won’t do, replaced by a more classical, but laughter-flaccidifying style.) Set in early 1953, during the lead-up to and immediate aftermath of Stalin’s final hours, this tonally audacious tightrope walk translates Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s grimly absurdist graphic novel into the realm of burlesque — as if someone had taken Karl Marx’s “The Communist Manifesto” and reimagined it as a loony Marx brothers movie.

Only Iannucci could have seen the free-wheeling comedic potential in Nury’s comicbook retelling, and perhaps only he can fully appreciate the result, which assembles a formidable cast of English-speaking actors (with wildly diverse personalities and accents) to play the senior members of the Communist Party, or Council of Minsters, scrambling to maintain order after the death of their fearless leader. Stalin’s tail-chasing inner circle includes, among others, “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor (in a girdle and ill-fitting wig) as interim honcho Georgy Malenkov, prosthetic-nosed Steve Buscemi as acting general secretary (and future premier) Nikita Khrushchev, former “Monty Python” trouper Michael Palin as foreign affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov and great British stage actor Simon Russell Beale as security chief Lavrentiy Beria.

They’re a patently ridiculous lot, bumbling around like so many headless chickens and characterized by an often-contradictory mix of self-preservation and power-grabbing ambition, well aware that the same gesture that could put any one of them in charge could just as easily lead to his own execution. Iannucci introduces these buffoons on the fly, via on-screen text labels, but unless you’re up to speed on mid-century Soviet politics, that’s hardly enough to make sense of who they are. In Stalin’s presence, they’re sycophants, but behind his back, each would gladly take his place.

Though their dialogue — laden with insults and rich in expletives — sounds awfully similar to the combative backroom banter Iannucci pioneered in his BBC Four satire “The Thick of It,” such cavalier name-calling (“You’re not even a person! You’re a testicle! You’re made mostly of hair!” rants Rupert Friend as Stalin’s loose-cannon son Vasily) seems out of place in an environment in which saying the wrong thing can get one shot, or else shipped off to the gulag.

For starters, the shouty, badger-the-underling dynamic that works so well with “Veep” and “In the Loop” (where it’s conceivable that prima-donna public officials might treat their lackeys like garbage) doesn’t really apply among the Council of Ministers — except, perhaps, when they call upon the city’s only remaining doctors after Stalin collapses and berate the miserable lot of them for their inconclusive diagnoses (when all the competent M.D.s have long since been detained: “Any doctor still in Moscow is not a good doctor”).

Among themselves, however, their tempers seem totally out of sync with the world being depicted, as if Iannucci has tried to transpose a certain sniveling aspect of the British national character onto Soviet Russia (a ploy that already showed some strain when he attempted the same with the U.S. in “Veep”). There’s a certain class dynamic — discernible in breeding, education and manner of speech — that’s grounds for abuse in England, whereas the very premise of Communism (however corrupt) aspires toward equality.

Here, the movie’s odd stew of accents (some American, others British, with Jason Isaacs performing his bearish general — a fresh spin on James Gandolfini’s “Loop” bully — in a thick Yorkville accent) makes for an inconsistent mix, devolving into the sort of general pandemonium found at the end of “Casino Royale” and various Mel Brooks movies, when you half-expect the cinema to catch fire. The ensemble’s acting styles are nearly as diverse, ranging from Tambor’s pigeon-like disorientation (his Malenkov is a beta personality thrust into an alpha role) to the shrewd, multi-layered complexity of Andrea Riseborough’s turn as Stalin’s daughter, duly concerned for her own safety.

Still, “The Death of Stalin” is not without flashes of brilliance, from the opening scramble (Stalin calls Radio Moscow to compliment them on the evening’s concert, requesting a recording of the performance for himself, forcing the engineer to repeat the entire show) to the funeral itself, at which no one seems especially distraught at the nation’s loss, despite the elaborate pomp and circumstance required of them. But so much of the movie simply doesn’t work, from self-serving speeches drowned out by jets to the miscalculated hilarity of Beria’s ouster, hasty show-trial and subsequent execution.

As Nury and Robin’s graphic novel made clear, it’s far more effective to play such incidents straight than it is exaggerating them to this extent. It’s the difference between “Richard III” and “The Mouse That Roared,” where tragedy proves far more damning than farce.

Film Review: ‘The Death of Stalin’

Reviewed at Rodeo screening room, Los Angeles, Aug. 29, 2017. (In Toronto Film Festival — Platform.) Running time: 107 MIN.

  • Production: (France-U.K.-Belgium) An IFC Films release of a Quad, Main Journey production, in co-production with Gaumont, France 3 Cinema, La Compagnie Cinematographique, Panache Prods., AFPI, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions. Producers: Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader. Executive producer: Jean-Christophe Colson. Co-producers: Andre Logie, Gaetan David.
  • Crew: Director: Armando Iannucci. Screenplay: Fabien Nury, Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, based on the comic books by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Camera (color): Zac Nicholson. Editor: Peter Lambert. Music: Christopher Willis.  
  • With: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor. (English dialogue)