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Death of Stalin, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Far funnier than it was in your high-school history classes."
4 stars

"The Death of Stalin" is one of the more audacious bases for a comedy you'll see, and one that may be coming a bit late to come across as truly daring - the Cold War seems just long enough ago for this story to seem more abstract than immediately terrifying - but it's not hard to see a metaphor in its madness regardless. Armando Iannucci has made a still-timely look at both the absurdity of having to live in fear and how it warps minds so that what comes after is a sort of scramble, with even the most diabolical often setting to strike randomly, hoping for an opponent's mistake as much as anything else.

The fear is on display right away, as a Radio Moscow producer (Paddy Considine) receives a call from the leader of the Soviet Union - he's terrified that he'll be a minute or two off the time he was requested to call back, and when he finds out that Stalin Josef (Adrian McLoughlin) wants a recording of the night's broadcast that wasn't made - well, he scrambles. Meanwhile, Stalin is yukking it up at his dacha with the members of his inner circle of Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Gregory Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), even though Molotov and his wife are on a list of enemies to be liquidated. He then suffers a cerebral hemorrhage while listening to his new record, and when he's found the next morning, the Central Committee are faced with a sticky situation: Most of the best doctors have been purged, and trying to maintain a tyrant's favor just in case he pulls through doesn't necessarily put one in the best position when scrambling to pick up the reigns of power should he not.

We've all been there, crazy as that can sound; few other leaders may have matched Stalin for scale in ruthlessly removing anyone seen to be a threat (and anyone around them, just in case the next guy might find martyrdom useful) and making use of the resultant paranoia, but most people have dealt with pettier tyrants and observed the combination of ambition and cowardice that it takes to function around them. It's a tricky thing to get right sometimes, and Adrian McLoughlin's Stalin may be the weakest part of the movie: He's as ridiculous as his underlings, but never quite displays the hidden danger that the other men get a chance to show.

Fortunately, the film soon moves on to the rest of the group, and their jockeying for position is pitch-perfect: There's a sense that these guys were frightened enough of Stalin to not truly consider succession until confronted with it (except, perhaps, Beria), and they stumble, making it up as they go along, with Iannucci choosing his spots to remind the audience that their improvisation often involves murder and the threat thereof, and even when Beria and Khrushchev are trying to show themselves as less cruel and capricious than Stalin, it's never allowed to be any sort of relief. Mostly, though, Iannucci plays up the frustration and uncertainty in a way that plays as quality farce, with everyone growing more harried, overwhelmed, sarcastic, and reeling from the chaos around them. The heightened setting adds an extra sting, but is just muted enough to not revel in the nastiness.

The film also has some of the year's funniest performances - who would have figured that Steve Buscemi playing Khrushchev would be one of the most hilarious things on screen in a long time? He is, though, giving the future Premier a neurotic fear of falling behind that's perfectly complemented by Simon Russell Beale as a cocky, too-gregarious Beria. There's also terrific work by Jeffrey Tambor as an empty but puffed-up deputy and Michael Palin, whose Molotov is a match for his ability to bluster a great deal without saying anything. The film is filled with people killing it in smaller roles, and gets a jolt of energy from a fantastic late-inning appearance by Jason Isaacs as a brash Field Marshal Zhukov; his position as a hero lets him be safe and unfettered in ways the other characters can't, and Isaacs chews the scenery with vigor. All of them, interestingly, use their natural accents, something that more filmmakers should try when making films set elsewhere - it keeps lines from being muddled by being spoken in a way their words aren't built for and lets the audience grab onto characterizations that much faster.

The film even sticks the ending, bringing the audience to a point that is satisfying both from what it knows of the real history and the stylized way Iannucci has presented it. That's an impressive feat even after 100 minutes or so of finding grand, impressive laughs in dark, tragic material.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31960&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/08/18 07:34:47
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/06/18 Nancy N Funny, disturbing, funny, and disturbing. Glad I saw it. 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  16-Mar-2018 (R)
  DVD: 19-Jun-2018

UK
  N/A

Australia
  16-Mar-2018
  DVD: 19-Jun-2018




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