Death of Stalin is No Funnier than Stalin Himself

Directed by Armando Iannucci
IFC Films, 107 minutes, R (language, violence, crude and disturbing sexual references)

The humor in The Death of Stalin is droll, dark, and irreverent. Unfortunately it’s also dull, crude, and as broad as Rush Limbaugh’s backside. (Hey, why not put all our tyrants in the same bowl of borscht?) I was hoping for an offbeat comedy such as Christopher Guest, Wes Anderson, or the Coen Brothers would make, but Scottish—yes he is Scottish—director Armando Iannucci isn’t up to such standards. He’s not even up to a sophomoric Mel Brooks-like effort.

The setup is real enough, even if Iannucci plays loose with facts. Josef Stalin took power in 1924, after pretty much betraying the Russian Revolution and turning the Soviet Union into a combination gulag and killing field. By the 1930s he had established himself as one of history’s great monsters—one responsible for the death of three times more Russians than Jews under Hitler. His brutal secret service, the NKVD, led by the brutal torturer Lavnentiy Beria routinely rounded up “enemies” of the State—a category that pretty much meant any sort of rival to the Stalin cult of personality. Survival required becoming a glad-hand sycophant and even then, one had to be careful that a drunken remark or poorly worded joke didn’t cause fatal offense.

Move the clock to 1953, the year in which we join the tale. The film opens to a Radio Moscow concert and a phone call from Comrade Stalin himself demanding a recording of the evening’s performance. Big problem—no tapes were rolling, but engineer Andreyev (Paddy Considine) and others in the booth know their heads will tumble if they don’t provide one. They scramble frantically to reassemble the musicians, find a conductor to replace the one who scampered out, and recruit a new audience. The line of scruffy peasants entering the hall is funny enough, albeit a gag that trades in stereotypes. But as the recording is delivered to a courier, pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a hate note into the album sleeve. Stalin sees it, laughs heartily, and collapses to the floor with a cerebral hemorrhage.

Call this the first of many scenes that could have been outlandishly humorous but is instead only mildly so. Stalin is lying on the floor, but there are no competent doctors to be found because Stalin had them all shot. (Not so!) So we watch his inner circle of yes men stand about wringing their hands: Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the hapless Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the conniving “Niki” Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the bureaucratic waffler Vyascheslav Molotov (Michael Palin). “This is terrible,” each proclaims, but none will take action lest Stalin survive and disapprove or, worse, he dies and the others turn against the actor in the power struggle sure to ensue. It could have been amusing, but it plays like a third-rate Victorian drawing room comedy.

Also misplaced is the orchestration of Stalin’s funeral. Instead of a full-bore send up of the State-directed/bungled attempt at image and impression management, we get a stitched-together parade of one-liners that are essentially a skim milk version of the dialogue among thugs from Quentin Taratino’s Reservoir Dogs. The only part of this sequence that brings a smile comes from Tambor as Malenkov. Under the Soviet constitution, he is acting head of state, a job for which he is as qualified as a plumber is to do brain surgery. There is funny sequence in which Malenkov tries to manufacture continuity by recreating an iconic photo of a smiling Stalin embracing a peasant girl oblivious to the fact that said photo was a few years out of date. His "official" portrait is also a hoot.

The central lampoon of the messiness and bloodiness of Stalin’s succession is true in its essence, though it’s unnecessarily freighted with detail that is more scene-chewing than central to the story: Svetlana’s (Andrea Riseborough) Jekyll and Hyde act of grieving daughter and erstwhile plotter, or Rupert Friend’ rather ham-handed turn as Stalin’s drunken and cowardly son Vasily. Jason Issacs goes so far over the top as the be-scarred General Zhukov I expected extras to enter the room and proclaim, “Hail, Caesar!”  Uncharacteristically, Buscemi is flat at Khrushchev, and Tambor brings to the table many of the same fey qualities from TV’s Transparent. The best performance by far is that of Simon Russell Beale, who is chilling as Beria.

As for the rest, I give credit for not trying to make the actors speak in bad Russian accents, but that’s about it. There is nothing remarkable about the camera work, the cinematography, or the script. There are pocketfuls of laughs scattered here and there, but not enough to offset inappropriate jokes about rape, rampant ethnic stereotyping, or gruesome scenes such as Stalin’s autopsy or the murder of Beria. The script was developed from a graphic novel and that is part of the problem. Not to slam graphic novels, but most are more visual than verbal and The Death of Stalin needed sharper words to pillory the world of soulless apparatchiks serving a heartless tyrant. By the time you read this review, The Death of Stalin will be available in video and streaming. A better fate would be to send it to Siberia.

Rob Weir

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