Every year I spend a good deal of time and expend a lot of thought into making a yearly top ten list of the best in cinema, and for as open-minded as I am I have noticed over the years that it’s pretty rare for a pure undiluted comedy to make those lists. Movies that are sort of hybrid comedy/dramas are actually kind of common, in fact my 2017 list had three movies that could be argued to be comedies in The Square, Ladybird, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri but these are not generally movies people go to when they’re straight up looking to laugh at a movie theater. Outside of those edge cases the comedies that usually make year end lists are movies like Birdman, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Wolf of Wall Street which have a whole lot going on in their production beyond their apparent wit. I don’t think this is exactly a bias that I’m alone in. If you look at most top ten lists and Best Picture slates you’ll probably see a similar pattern and it maybe says less about critics and more about how unambitious dedicated comedians can sometimes be in their craft. As if being funny is in itself so hard that they can’t be bothered to also build a great movie around a great set of jokes. I bring all this up because I think the highest a 100% comedy has ever gotten on one of my top ten lists was in 2009 when I put Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy In the Loop in my number two slot right behind Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Ingourious Basterds (itself a semi-comedy), and the new film The Death of Stalin is in many ways Iannucci’s follow-up to that future comedy classic.
The film is set early in 1953 and begins with Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) at his most powerful and most feared. NKVD agents (the spread police) are actively hunting down people on lists made by the party and throwing them in gulags and or executing them. We spend a great deal of time early in the film watching a producer (Paddy Considine) at Radio Moscow scramble beyond reason to recreate a broadcast the dictator has requested a recording of just to establish the extent to which the normal Soviet citizen will piss their pants at the possibility of having slighted this regime. But this will prove to be something of a turning point because the night of that broadcast Stalin suddenly becomes violently ill and it becomes clear to everybody in his inner circle that there’s about to be a transition of power in a global superpower and they immediately start jockeying for power. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) begins trying to paint himself as the people’s advocate, much to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) chagrin and both men try different approaches to gaining the favor of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and manipulating the parliamentary process that Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor) rather lackadaisically tries to assert. They also try to gain the favor of army officer/war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Issac) and to manipulate Salin’s heirs Svetlana Stalina (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend).
Iannucci’s In the Loop was more or less an adaptation of a British TV show he ran called “The Thick of It.” These were both projects that sought to demystify politics by suggesting that behind closed doors elected officials were petty and vulgar people who would make decisions for entirely self-serving reasons, but not in a glamourous way like on “House of Cards,” more like the kind of relatable human shortcomings on something like “The Office.” If this sounds familiar to American audiences it’s because after the success of In the Loop Iannucci tooke this idea to HBO and created the much awarded series “Veep,” which is if anything even more cynical in its outlook. With The Death of Stalin Iannucci has perhaps taken this idea to its logical extreme by applying it to one of the most infamous regimes in world history. The various Stalin cronies who begins sniping at each other here are a bit smarter and more competent than some of the politicians Iannucci has brought us elsewhere but their personalities and shortcomings are not dissimilar from what we’ve seen in the director’s other films. The key difference is that here’s they’re playing games that have life or death stakes to a degree that some of his other characters aren’t.
I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Soviet history and when it came to do with this particular power struggle I didn’t go in knowing much except for the fact that it wasn’t Lavrentiy Beria who would famously end up on the other side of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Consequently I’m not terribly knowledgeable about the specifics of how accurate this film is but I have a hunch that the movie’s approach is to be very accurate about the facts of what went down during this period while changing the tone of everyone’s mannerisms to fit more with Iannucci’s usual vision of how politics happens. One part of this is that he’s casted nothing but British and American actors in the various Russian roles in the film and has clearly instructed them not to attempt any kind of Russian accent but to simply speak in their usual comic voice. In the case of Stalin himself, who sounds like a “cockney geezer” I’m not sure this works, but for the rest of the movie it was a shrewd choice which really brings out the personalities in these characters who might otherwise be kind of hard to relate to on any level. For instance, the Georgy Malenkov here is like the guy who finds himself in a position of authority and Beria is like the guy who’s got a plan but is so transparent in implementing it that people move against him while Khrushchev is like the guy who doesn’t have the force of personality to speak up in a meeting but ultimately sees things a bit more clearly than the people around him.
The Death of Stalin is a movie I’ve been pretty excited about ever since it started getting raves on the festival circuit and in part because of the buildup I must say that as audacious as the film was and as much as I could see the wit here the movie never quite lived up to my high expectations. The movie is certainly funny, but it never quite had me in stitches like In the Loop did. I think part of that might simply be that after In the Loop and six season of Veep this particular brand of comedy might just not have quite the potency it used to. I also suspect that the foreign/period setting might have taken a few weapons off the table. The writing here can’t really employ pop culture references for example and the actors don’t quite seem to have the same freedom to improvise that they might have in some other contexts. Additionally there are a couple stray elements here that just feel a little sloppy like the occasional title cards which pop up to display applicable Soviet laws which don’t look great and aren’t really used frequently enough to fully integrate into the film’s grammar. That’s a minor quibble but I think the bigger thing holding this back is that making a movie about a foreign country’s history simply feels less subversive than mocking one’s own government. If this had been made while the Cold War was going on or been made by Russians it would have felt really daring, as it is it just feels like a strange but mostly well executed bit of gallows humor. But “strange but mostly well executed bits of gallows humor” don’t come along every day so perhaps I should stop complaining.
***1/2 out of Five