"The Death of Stalin" Review
Retelling the last days of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the power struggle immediately after as a comedy might not sound like the best idea for a feature film. It’s a good thing that Armando Iannucci didn’t follow this advice and immediately went ahead and made a crass comedy that pokes fun at one of history's most brutal regimes. He assembled an all-star cast and paired them up with great writing to make one of the best independent comedies of the year.
Like the title says, the film tells the true-ish story of how the top leaders of the USSR reacted to the death of their larger than life leader Joseph Stalin. Politicians, generals, committee chiefs, and spymasters engage in all-out war to assume the coveted position of state dictator.
The plot of the film is very simple and doesn’t get bogged down by unnecessary subplots. Iannucci’s time with the series The Thick of It and Veep clearly developed him to be a great writer for political satire. He creates great characters that are all incompetent and power hungry, which is the perfect combination that results in comedic brilliance. We flow from scene to scene with each character and witness some great dialogue being spoken, most of which is just cursed filled banter.
The main aspect of the film that comes as a surprise is the way the dark humor is presented. There aren’t moments in the film where you feel like you’re supposed to laugh. Mainly there are just a couple dozen good parts and you pick and choose which ones you find funny. Don’t like a joke about someone being shot in the head? Well, there’s a good bit about Stalin falling over dead and pissing himself. Don’t like that either? There’s a joke about a man wearing his pants incorrectly and that his hairpiece looks like feces. Don’t like crude humor in general? Well, then I think you should never watch this film.
The actors all fit right into their characters and give them the right amount of credibility and ineptness. Nobody is really that smart in this film, except maybe for Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who, if you know your history, won the power struggle and became premier. Buscemi plays it brilliantly as a man amongst children, all the while lampooning himself.
The funniest thing the actors get to do is speak in their natural voice. There are no fake Russian accents, which is a good thing since it would have been extremely annoying to hear. What we get is a mix of nationalities fighting for power. Buscemi’s Brooklyn and Tambor’s California go against Isaac's hard English and Kurylenko’s Ukrainian.
I’m not going to congratulate every single actor for a job well done because it would get quite boring and repetitive. However, I would like to give a special congratulations to Jason Isaacs for playing the foul-mouthed and smug General Zhukov. He’s hilarious to watch and gives some of the funniest lines. To quote his best line (I hope I heard it correctly): “I fucked Germany, I think I can take a flesh looping in a fucking waistcoat!”
Iannucci has built up a strong following over the years, so I presume all of them will flock to this like squirrels to nuts, not that I’m comparing his fans to squirrels. But for those on the fence, The Death of Stalin is a well made dark comedy that isn’t afraid to use history and its participants as a punching bag. It’s not great, it’s just entertainingly good, and that’s all you really need from a comedy.