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The Death of Stalin

Mar 30, 2018

Uneven but amusing history set in hitherto unfunny Russia.

The Death of Stalin

Grade: B

Director: Armando Iannucci (In the Loop)

Screenplay: Iannucci, et al., from Fabien Nury graphic novel

Cast: Steve Buscemi (Fargo), Simon Russell Beale (Into the Woods)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 47 min

by John DeSando

Moscow 1953 was good for notorious butcher/dictator Josef Stalin: He was completing the eradication of 20 million Soviets and so powerful that he could ask for a classical recording of a Mozart concert that required the orchestra, audience, and pianist to repeat the performance. Armando Iannucci’s Soviet low-brow satire, The Death of Stalin, takes black comedy from his Veep territory to uncompromising, humorous honesty about ambition with the weight of history behind it.

Wisecracking acting general secretary and future premier Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) works before and after Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) death to ensure his ascendency to the top spot. Making certain security head Lavrently Beria is not going to be the new Stalin is just one of the successes for the conspiring Khrushchev, who could be mistaken for a Marx brother in one of their zany comedies. This adaptation of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel is a wild foray into grim post-WWII politics.  

At times, Buscemi is the consummate comedic actor, slightly underplaying while yet milking the laughs. When every other word is an f bomb, not so much.  Jeffrey Tambor as interim premier Melankov is in the same spot—funny when he’s not way over the top silly and clueless. Former Monty Python clown, Michael Palin, is wasted as foreign affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov; Palin’s presence promises more zany than actually happens. Mostly the Stalin acolytes act like they are school kids putting on a hapless comedy as they jockey for the top spot.

Not nearly as witty as Iannucci’s The Loop, The Death of Stalin is still unevenly funny. Russian history in a condensed version is compelling when you consider the long tenure of Vladimir Putin and the rumors that float about his ruthlessness. Some things never change, comedy or not.

“Don’t worry, nobody's gonna get killed, I promise you. This is just a musical emergency!”    Andreyev (Paddy Considine)

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com