The Death of Stalin

A blatantly British comedy that is funny in parts but overall underwhelming.
Movie Review #1,127

Distributed by IFC Films. Comedy, Drama, History. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references. Released March 9, 2018. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Produced by Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader, Laurent Zeitoun, and Yann Zenou. Written by Iannucci and David Schneider and Ian Martin and additional material by Peter Fellows. Based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Original screenplay by Nury. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, and Jeffrey Tambor.

“The Death of Stalin” is supposedly one of the best comedies of the year. Metacritic designates it an 88, meaning universal acclaim; any film to surpass 80 (out of 100) on their scale is generally worth seeing. Now I consider myself a smart person. I like lowbrow humor but I can also understand and appreciate highbrow humor as well. But the folderol surrounding this film simply befuddles me. Parts are funny, but if I’m watching a movie, especially a comedy, I want to enjoy the whole shebang as a holistic product.

“The Death of Stalin” is a blatantly British take on the Russian government’s power struggle in the days after the sudden death of their communist leader—ahem, dictator—Josef Stalin. The film starts out hilarious and madcap for roughly the first twenty minutes. We’re treated to an extended gag where an orchestra is performing for government officials. Stalin is unable to attend and calls right at the end of the performance asking that it be taped. He doesn’t sound demanding but these men know that it means their life if they aren’t able to fulfill this for him, so naturally, they insist that everybody sit back down and the orchestra start their performance all over again so they can tape it.

This scene is gold. It plays out like a “Flying Circus” skit, or perhaps a Monty Python film (whose own Michael Palin appears in the film as First Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Molotov) had any of them been set in Soviet Russia. It works quite well as an exposition. But as soon as Stalin dies—the inciting incident of the film—and the film’s plot goes into effect, the laughs become few and far between. The film is a ridiculous portrayal of the Russian government in its post-Stalin days, but oddly enough, not ridiculous in a funny way.

Incidentally the major standout of this film is virtually its only American actor, Steve Buscemi. There’s something special about the way that this is a film about Russia with a British cast whose best moments are Buscemi’s references to 1950s American pop culture icons like Clark Gable, Abbott and Costello, and Grace Kelly. He’s about as convincing as Nikita Krushchev as Martin Wuttke was as Adolf Hitler in “Inglourious Basterds,” but that’s most certainly the point.

These are positive points in a film that is rather middling overall. “The Death of Stalin” is the cinematic child of satirist Armando Iannucci. He’s better known as the creator of TV’s “Veep,” which I didn’t find particularly funny either. If you did then perhaps this is for you, but if not then it surely isn’t.

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