Scottish writer and satirist Armando Iannucci is best known to American audiences as the creator of the acclaimed HBO series “Veep.” You think the sarcastic irony is strong in “Veep?” Wait ‘til you see Armando’s feature length gem “The Death of Stalin.” Could there be any less amusing chapter in world history than the power struggle left in the sudden absence of one of the most evil dictators ever known? Perhaps not, but Monty Python made a career out of skewering those deemed above (or perhaps below) such ridicule. And now, so has Iannucci.
“The Death of Stalin” opens with the absolute ruler listening to a live broadcast of a Mozart recital occurring in Moscow. Apparently pleased with the musicianship, Stalin demands a recording of the concert be delivered to his quarters immediately. As the concert was not recorded, employees of the broadcasting radio station (never wanting to openly cross the autocrat) immediately restage the concert – even replacing the seats of those patrons who had already left the concert hall with local passersby, to replicate the exact sound quality of the original broadcast. When the conductor faints, another great Russian conductor is awakened and rushed to the concert hall, where he proceeds to conduct the music in his pajamas. It is this bend-over-backward attempt to curry favor with Stalin that provides most of the early humor of Iannucci’s screenplay.
When the dictator takes ill, his cabinet members readily assert themselves to prove to the others (and perhaps even themselves) who has the greatest reverence for the supreme leader. Ironically, a team of great Soviet doctors cannot be readily formed as Stalin has sent the best physicians to Siberia – providing a second wave of humorous situations.
Even before Stalin’s death, factions begin to form. Eventual Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev (who rushes to Stalin’s side so quickly he too is in his pajamas) immediately suggests reforms. Seeing this tact as one which will be eagerly embraced, deputy premier Lavrentiy Beria (a downright unlikable guy) backs the inherently dimwitted deputy general secretary Georgy Malenkov, encouraging him to embrace and take credit for Krushchev’s proposals.
The casting in “The Death of Stalin” is brilliant. Try this one on for size: Nikita Krushchev is played by Steve Buscemi. Yes, really. Run that one through your head for a few minutes, then consider that British stage actor Simon Russell Beale practically steals the show as the excessively driven, corrupt, and downright unpleasant Beria. And Jeffrey Tambor has never been better as the dense Malenkov – trying so hard to please Beria he makes a mockery of his assumed ascension to the throne. I’m certain the Beria/Malenkov angle isn’t meant to replicate Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, but it sure seems that way.
The humor in “The Death of Stalin” isn’t so much the instantly repeatable one-liners of say “Airplane” or “Young Frankenstein,” but rather the humor of situations and discussions. Who knew making preparations for the funeral of a ruthless dictator could be funny? But it is. We find ourselves laughing at situations we know shouldn’t be funny, a la Quentin Tarantino, but the overall presentation is more what we’d expect from Wes Anderson, albeit with a politically sarcastic slant. And don’t worry that you’re not an expert on Soviet history. Iannucci’s screenplay assumes we don’t know (or that we’ve long since forgotten our world history), and gleefully fills in the blanks.
While the historical accuracy of “The Death of Stalin” has been brought into question by some scholars, each of the characters is real, and their factionalizing race for power is based on reality.
As far as comedy goes, this is reminiscent of Monty Python in that it is highbrow enough to tackle actual history (and serious, stodgy history at that) yet “common” enough to produce belly laughs from simple situations like Stalin’s unstable son’s ridiculous eulogy. For my money, I’m pleased Iannucci and his co-writers did not stoop to bodily-function gags and the lowbrow humor we expect from Saturday Night Live alums. “The Death of Stalin” is a real treat, and the funniest picture I’ve seen in some time.