In Armando Ianucci’s brilliant 2009 political skewering In the Loop, two men are having a discussion and one tells his subordinate that what he asks of him will be “easy peazy lemon squeezie.” After a perfectly timed pause, the subordinate’s reply comes as “no, sir, it will be difficult, difficult, lemon difficult.” Try using that one in conversation some day to alleviate tension. It works.
And so goes the adept humor of writer/director Iannucci , who stamped his brand on popular culture as the co-writer and director of critically acclaimed TV shows Veep and The Thick of It. Continually embroiled in the sheer ludicrous nature of political skulduggery and the psychotic personalities that often comprise such bodies of government, Iannucci’s latest target is his most bold and savage yet: the Stalinist regime of 1953 Soviet Union with The Death of Stalin. Trading comedy with the cloistered violence and oppression of the era is a risky feat, and while the film does have its moments of weakened stature, it more than largely succeeds in skewering this period of history as well.
Setting up its absurdist tone immediately, the film opens on a Moscow Radio technician (Paddy Considine) who fitfully misses starting a recording of Stalin’s favorite orchestra performance because of a phone call he receives in the sound booth. Forced to hold everyone in place and re-record the performance (complete with pulling peasants off the street for extra audience participation), the record is eventually put in the hands of Soviet soldiers. Tucked away inside the record is also a handwritten note by a spiteful pianist (Olga Kurylenko), asking God to strike down Stalin for his murderous ways. Naturally, in any good comedy, the note is read by Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), who surreptitiously collapses and dies the next day, setting off a chain of backstabbing and status-hopping as his cabinet members jockey for position.
Deputy Minister Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) assumes the position. Secret police henchmen leader Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) immediately begins to perfect his counter-espionage tactics against the group. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) bides his time, worming his way through various alliances. In between the secret killings, population suppression and beatings inside the Gulag which The Death of Stalin shows in small snippets, Iannucci and co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin, who adapted the story from a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, counteract these inhuman actions with bumbling dialogue and scathing caricatures of life inside the guilded portion of the Iron Curtain. It could be called bad taste by some, but Iannucci and company choose to go all-out comedy as a form of biting commentary.
Dotted with a further terrific cast, including Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs and Rupert Friend, The Death of Stalin moves briskly, barely able to contain all its visual and audible jokes in one sitting. The entrance of two Cabinet members played by Paul Chahidi and Paul Whitehouse, timed in slow motion with their voices of “where’s the big fella?” and “we’re late… I’m soooorrrryyyy!” or the way a soldier slowly covers the eyes of a little girl so she won’t witness the outburst of curse words being thrown at other people in the room are small coups of comedic brilliance. It’s a film that gets more mileage out of the background players than the main puppets.
Add to the fact that no one tries to hide their American or British accents while they play magnanimous men in a very dark period of European history and The Death of Stalin reveals its complete resistance to situating itself as anything more than broad comedy. I look forward to Iannucci’s take on the Cold War next.
The Death of Stalin opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, March 23 at Angelika Film Center in Plano and Landmark Magnolia in Dallas.