SATIRE; 1hr 47min
STARRING: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin
Party animals: Buscemi (left) and Tambor
In 1953, after 20 years of mass torture and killings, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is at death’s door, and good riddance. A stroke has toppled the Communist Party’s general secretary whose inner-circle of bloodhounds are relishing the sweet smell of blood while pretending—badly—to be wracked with grief, lest they betray themselves into a sticky end.
What a sorry bunch of weaselly, potty-mouthed, multi-accented numbskulls they are. (Buscemi plays the clown and the schemer as first secretary Nikita Khrushchev and Transparent’s Tambor the fool as Stalin’s clueless deputy, Georgy Malenkov, while Monty Python’s Palin is quaking foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov—as in cocktail, appropriately enough.) And since all the top Moscow doctors are either “in the gulag or dead,” no classy medical help is at hand for the big cheese, either.
With Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) at the helm and such philosophical questions as “How can you run and plot at the same time?” setting the absurdist tone, The Death of Stalin is a bunfight wrapped in patchy burlesque. It’s also, incredibly, fact-based, which necessitates a certain thin-lipped mayhem in the aftermath of the leader’s passing. Working from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, the way Iannucci tells it, these were turbulent, back-stabbing times run by vanity, stupidity, rampant ambition and cutthroat intrigue. Their more serious aspects don’t fully gel with his farcical comic barrage, yet the filmmaker is never fazed, whooping it up on the edge of political reality with a sort of sophomoric glee. His enfant-terrible take on Soviet secrets-and-lies stays batshit-crazy to a bitter end that seems unlikely to leave anybody laughing.