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THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018) review

March 25, 2018

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written by: Armando Iannucci and David Schneider and Ian Martin, based on the comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin; additional material by Peter Fellows
produced by: Catherine Dumonceaux, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader, Sofia Maltseva, Tanya Sokolova, Laurent Zeitoun, Yann Zenou 
directed by: Armando Iannucci
rated: R (for language throughout, violence and some sexual references)
runtime: 107 min.
U.S. release date: March 9, 2018 (limited)

 

“No, he said something quite complicated about a voucher system.”

 

Scottish political satirist Armando Iannucci (“Veep,” “In the Loop”) is undeniably the sharpest wit of his generation in his particular niche. Part of the reason no one seems to compete with him is that his works are so singular. Like Christopher Guest and Robert Altman before him, he’s created a genre that solely includes the director’s own work.

His latest effort, “The Death of Stalin,” might be his most timely due to its pitch black view of the men that have always run our world. At its core, “Veep” is optimistic enough to believe that a woman could ever be elected president. “The Death of Stalin” opts to hold a mirror up to our current political nightmare by showing us how this whole thing plays itself out, time and again.

 

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In a stroke of brilliance taken right out of Milos Forman’s “Amadeus,” Iannucci allows his talented British and American cast to just talk in their normal speaking voice, accent and all. Therefore, the film doesn’t saddle its actors with having to “Boris and Natasha” their way through heavy Russian affectations. Instead, everyone just speaks how they speak in real life, save a brilliantly over the top Scottish brogue adopted by Jason Isaacs.

As the title would suggest, the film is set in the aftermath of Stalin’s death and the power grab that occurred between a group of about five different men who all felt they deserved to be his successor. Thinking that this premise could at all be played for laughs is part of what sets Iannucci apart from his contemporaries.

The other hallmark that sets this work apart from other comedies is that it’s absolutely brutal when it wants to be, and doesn’t find the humor in the slaughter of thousands, if not millions. But it finds plenty in the men who order such inhuman acts, and revels in presenting them as the buffoons they likely were.

 

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The main players involved in the plot all bring great relish to their roles. Steve Buscemi, sporting a glorious fake nose, portrays Nikita Khrushchev as an insecure ninny, forever on his back foot. The brilliant Simon Russell Beale brings us a portrait of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s head of the NKVD, that is both razor sharp in its wit and simultaneously bone-chilling in its execution.

Also in the mix are Jeffrey Tambor‘s dim-witted Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s immediate replacement, Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s children, and Michael Palin – always a welcome sight – as another member of Stalin’s inner circle. It’s a cast overflowing with brilliance, and they all shine many times over throughout the film.

While there are allusions to many styles of comedy from Monty Python to ZAZ comedies like “Airplane!” and “Top Secret,” it ultimately owes more than a little to The Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” and its chaotic depiction of war as a battle over who can be most petty. The film is a brilliant satire not just of the cyclical nature of these sorts of affairs, but how much they parallel current events. Almost to a degree where you’ll feel terrible for laughing so much.

It’s a history lesson we could all benefit from, and one we’re doomed to repeat if we don’t. I wish more comedies like this were being made, more films that could take a humorless moment in history and find the jokes in there. But at the same time, I’m glad that Iannucci hasn’t inspired a wealth of imitators, because it makes the work he does all the more special. “The Death of Stalin” is as funny and depressing a film as has been made in the last two years. It’s one to laugh with, cringe at, and leave with a feeling of hopelessness for the future. That’s what really good satire is supposed to do.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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