THE DEATH OF STALIN is a 2017 black comedy about the confusion and power-grab shuffle in the USSR upon the sudden 1953 passage to Hell of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. As a black comedies go, it makes Natural Born Killers look like The Pink Panther.
When “The Boss” dies, Stalin’s grotesque coterie of underlings try to outmaneuver each other in the vacuum. Those who somehow managed to still be alive after his 26-year reign of terror and now fumble for the top spot include such once-famous & feared folk as Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). War hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) adds to the free-for-all, as do Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and drunken fool of a son Vasily (Rupert Friend). No one can be trusted.
Nor can a good many critics, judging by the mostly rapturous reviews this received. Political & social satirist Armando Iannucci directed, and co-wrote the script with David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. It was adapted from a French comic book series, “Le Morte de Staline”, designed by Thierry Robin, written by Fabien Nury.
Apart from Buscemi and Tambor, the flavor is all very British, and not tea time quipping but seven pints and a brawl. Take Monty Python, make them meaner and twice as vulgar. Comedy is almost always at someone else’s expense, ranging from a gentle tease to a mocking sneer, with all manner of put-downs and pratfalls in between. Timing may be everything, but tone counts as well. Psychopaths giggle while they work. The actors are good, and there are some smart lines for them to chew on, but it’s about as funny as the bygone real-life ogres they play. *
Buscemi is a weird, grating choice as Khrushchev. Best performances come from Beale as loathsome Beria, truly uncomfortable, and Isaacs, playing to the rafters as Zhukov (though miles from accurate). With Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Adrian McLoughlin (Stalin), Paul Whitehouse (Mikoyan), Paul Chahidi (Bulganin), Dermot Crowley (Kaganovich), Jonny Phillips. Produced for $13,000,000, it managed a global gross of $24,600,000. It was banned in Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
* Clever isn’t necessarily funny. Why not fall down larfing over Israel & the Palestinians? How about those hilarious death squads in South America? Mass rape in the Congo? Abu Ghraib? Auschwitz the Musical? The more I think about this play-cute-with-cruelty movie, the more arrogant it seems. Take an easy target: unattractive dead white guys with funny names in a country that’s been used as a boogeyman for centuries (evil Russians are interfering with you reading this!–get under your desk!). Pepper every sentence with profanity, do it with a variety of English accents (instant smart!), have them spit yells at each other and—voila!—a Bolshoi Ballet of swoons.