Veep creator Armando Iannucci brings his acid tongue and razor-sharp wit to this Soviet-era political farce, aided by an impeccable ensemble cast.
The Death of Stalin succeeds wonderfully as a calamitous farce, wherein every character falls victim to their own overly meticulous plotting. Every minor detail is chewed on, spat out, chewed again, and finally swallowed only to be regurgitated. Armando Iannucci’s latest dive into cutting political farce is an avalanche of inconveniences – in the best possible way.
The story opens in a concert hall in Moscow, 1953. Mozart’s 23rd is in full swing when the concert director receives an unexpected phone call from Josef Stalin himself. Comrade General’s only instructions are to call him back in exactly seventeen minutes. The concert director and his assistant argue over whether the number Stalin left ended in a five or a nine. They argue over whether Stalin meant them to call back seventeen minutes after the call initiated, or seventeen minutes after the call terminated. And when they finally call back at the (more or less) appointed time, only then does Stalin reveal that he merely wanted a recording of the concert, which of course, was not recorded. The concert director runs through the crowded hall, declaring a “musical emergency!” He bribes the pianist for an encore, drags in beggars to fill the seats, mints an LP on the fly, and still gets chastised for tardiness.
After all that, exactly seventeen minutes into the film’s runtime, Stalin’s brain hemorrhages and he dies in a puddle of his own excrement.
Whether you consider this element of timing to be a meaningless Easter egg or a prime example of the film’s desperate search for meaning in chaos is up to you, but the fact is apparent that the entire concert was a sly seventeen minutes of ado about nothing, and only afterwards does the film venture to earn a title and begin a plot. Confusion piles on hard and fast from there on, and the ridiculous, circuitous machinations that make up a dictatorship are happy to be extrapolated.
Written and directed by Armando Iannucci (known best abroad for creating the UK sensation The Thick of It, and stateside as the creator of Veep) and based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, The Death of Stalin lives and dies by its politics, its sharp dialogue, and its obsessive attention to each and every tiny little cog that helps to turn the world around. In this respect, it’s not dissimilar to his riotous 2009 Iraq War farce In the Loop – characters in positions of power bickering like schoolchildren, all of them armed with Iannucci’s acid tongue.
The performers here should be praised for their commitment to naturalism in a world gone absolutely mad. The script (co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows) leans heavily on improvisation, which works in the film’s favor. The panic of never knowing what your scene partner will say next translates impeccably well into the political sphere of lies and secrecy, where each and every word is needed urgently, and the wrong words will certainly be your last.
Iannucci’s films are often blessed with stellar, unconventional casts, but Death of Stalin assembles one of his best. The entire ensemble delivers praiseworthy, uproarious performances, especially Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Kruschchev, imbued with the actor’s trademark shiftiness and razor-sharp comic timing. Everyone else, from Simon Russell Beale’s secret police chief to Jason Isaac’s stuffy general, is pitch-perfect, giving impeccable performances ideally suited to Iannucci’s rapid-fire, deeply cynical dialogue. (Speaking of which, it’s nice to see Michael Palin in movies again.) Especially freeing is their decision to sidestep verisimilitude by having its American and British cast keep their natural dialects. It’s refreshing that the film avoids making its cast mumble through Boris-and-Natasha voices, letting them play to their strengths. If anything, the droll hilarity of a broken bureaucracy just works much better when filtered through a British accent.
The Death of Stalin is a parade of limp-dicked sycophants desperately vying to fill the biggest power vacuum in modern political history. The characters are plagued by too much instruction and too little information. They’re lost. They’re forced to jump through hoop after hoop, bedraggled and befuddled by their overreaching, self-assured bureaucracy. They quibble over minutia constantly, which, to be honest, does grow tiring, but what else can you expect these characters to do in a world where red tape regulations have rendered productivity in any form impossible?
And what is such a society to do when their fearless leader up and dies?
Yeah, they don’t know either.
The Death of Stalin is in theaters now.