Writer/director Armando Iannucci has made a name for himself crafting witty social and political satire in fictional movies like Alan Partridge
and television shows like "Veep." Now, he tackles wacky real events and characters in his newest movie, The Death of Stalin
Predictably, The Death of Stalin
begins with the death of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin from Thunderpants
). His governing committee, made up of sycophants and psychopaths like Nikita Khrushchev (Fargo
's Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor from "Arrested Development"), Vyacheslav Molotov (Monty Python member Michael Palin), Anastas Mikoyan (Mortdecai
's Paul Whitehouse), and Lavrenti Beria (My Week with Marilyn
's Simon Russell Beale), immediately starts to scheme to see who will seize power. As the lies and double-crosses run rampant, the situation gets complicated by the presence of Stalin's children, Svetlana and Vasily (Andrea Riseborough from Nocturnal Animals
and Rupert Friend from Hitman: Agent 47
), at the funeral. The plotting turns deadly with the involvement of Russian Army Field Marshall Zhukov (Jason Isaacs from A Cure for Wellness
), and things get personal with the meddling of a vengeful pianist named Maria Yudina (To the Wonder
's Olga Kurylenko).
From the tone, it would seem as if The Death of Stalin
was adapted from a stage play, but it was actually adapted from a comic book. Iannucci and his writing pal Ian Martin (who also wrote for "Veep") worked with fellow screenwriter David Schneider ("Uncle Max") to adapt the French graphic novel La mort de Staline
, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, for the screen. It' a lot of work to keep up with all of the similar characters, shifting allegiances, and changing motivations, but careful attention pays off, as The Death of Stalin
is a hilarious sendup of not just the old time Russian political system, but political bureaucracy and cronyism in general.
The authenticity of the events in The Death of Stalin
may be questionable, but that's mainly because the circumstances of the real Stalin's death are shrouded in mystery, and what is known is actually stranger than what shows up onscreen in the movie. Iannucci actually had to tone down the real story to make it more believable for the audience. There are still some great ludicrous moments in the film - for example, it's true that Stalin's compadres had trouble finding a doctor to treat him because he suspected all doctors of trying to assassinate him and had them all either locked up or executed. But, in many places, cinematic license was taken in a way that toned down the absurd so that the audience would have an easier time suspending their disbelief.
Authentic or not, The Death of Stalin
is a good time. Aided by his wonderful cast (Buscemi and Tambor steal the show, and Isaacs is absolutely magnetic in his limited role), Iannucci has crafted a highly entertaining dark comedy with real-world implications. And if a movie can't let you laugh at real world implications, what good is it?
Most of the comedy in The Death of Stalin
is derived from witty wordplay and impeccable timing. The humor is dry and insulting, but also very above the board. The whole thing plays out like a cleaned-up Monty Python sketch. It even self-referentially makes fun of itself and its complicated character relationships when one of the committee members says to the others "I'm exhausted, I can't remember who's alive or who's dead!" There are few surprises in the film, but the audience being privy to the plots and schemes helps the hilarity, as they know what's coming, and only have to wait to see if it fails or succeeds, and how funny it will be when it does.
It's worth noting that the dark comedy in The Death of Stalin
turns just dark in about the last ten minutes. That's when the movie stops being funny and starts getting morose. It's fine, though, because by that point, every character has proven themselves to be a terrible person, and the audience doesn't care how horrible their fate is. And the final scenes of The Death of Stalin
are nothing to laugh at.