Movie Review – The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Palin
Black comedies walk a narrow path. They deal with darkness and morbidity, all the while attempting to make their audiences laugh. When done right, they can make you smile at the darkest of situations. In Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude it was suicide. In Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H it was the body-mangling atrocities of war. And in the king of all movie black comedies, Stanley Kubrick’s 1966 classic, Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and Love the Bomb, it was nothing less than nuclear annihilation. The secret to these films is tone. While the subject matter is grim, the tone is humorous, though generally very dry, but there have been exceptions. The films and TV sketches of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the sadly forgotten 1980 serial killer gem Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe both set lighter, often wacky moods even while dealing with violent death and murder. Conversely, sometimes the humor is so subtle as to exclude the film from being considered a comedy at all. Alfred Hitchcock is said to have considered Psycho a comedy (“my mother isn’t herself today”) and there are undeniable comic undertones to Billy Wilder’s brilliantly cynical Hollywood tragedy Sunset Boulevard. But the important thing is consistency. Abandon your set tone and you stray from the path. The Death of Stalin, the new film from Scottish director Armando Iannucci, the Emmy winning writer/creator of HBO’s wry political satire Veep, disregards this rule completely and not only strays from the path, it gets lost in the forest forever.
After the death of the brutal tyrant Joseph Stalin (Rupert Friend), de facto dictator of the Soviet Union, who is thought by many historians to have been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his own people, members of the Soviet Central Committee (Secretariat) begin jockeying for power. The sneaky and ruthless Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), former head of the notorious NKVD, the country’s murderous Ministry of Internal Affairs, manipulates the vain Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) while competing with Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) for favor among the Soviet people. Malenkov is installed as leader while Beria and Khrushchev callously murder thousands to diminish the other’s influence.
This is heady and ballsy material for a comedy and the film recognizes the tragedy of these events by altering the comedic scenes of its boobish politicians with the more dramatic scenes of their various crimes against humanity. The contrast is reinforced by the alternately light and frequently heavy soundtrack by Christopher Willis which incorporates majestic Russian classical music for its dramatic moments. But such moments outweigh the often-forced comedy and the overwhelming vibe is not one of humor but of sadness. People fritter to-and-fro in fear for their lives. Hidden hatred of Stalin seethes in text and subtext while the members of the Central Committee are portrayed as comically childish ass-kissers. The two moods mix like oil and water. These were evil people. Their bumbling can’t disguise the horrors they were responsible for and the film’s ever-changing tone ruins all attempts at black humor. The Death of Stalin tries most to emulate Python’s casual dark farce and unsurprisingly the troupe’s Michael Palin has a major role. But while movies like Holy Grail and Life of Brian kept their humorous tone throughout, even through bloody visuals like Grail’s hilarious mock-gore dismemberment scene and Brian’s shockingly funny body slicing moment, with The Death of Stalin you never know whether to laugh or cry. And it doesn’t help that much of the humor falls awkwardly flat. It’s old-fashioned slapstick and vaudeville-esque corn seems out of date.
To be fair, there are sporadic giggles scattered about, largely due to the film’s superior cast composed of formidable talent like Beale (in a deliciously sinister performance), Tambor, Jason Isaac, and Buscemi, who comes off best with his weaselly Khrushchev. The staged dramatic scenes of massacres and murder are tense and heart-pounding, but when the leads ham it up for laughs, they leave a bitter taste.
Based on the heralded graphic novel by writer Fabien Nury and illustrator Thierry Robin, and adapted for the screen by Iannucci, comic actor David Schneider, and Peter Fellows, this story could have been a great straight political thriller. But it’s hard to imagine any way it could have resulted in an enjoyable dark comedy. I suppose, with the right director, anything is possible. But it’s worth noting that virtually all memorable black comedies are based on fictitious events. Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks may have mined their share of Hitler jokes, but they never laughed at the Holocaust. That’s why Roseanne Barr’s concentration camp oven, ginger bread cookie meme is so appalling. Maybe it’s just that real-life political oppression, genocide, and mass slaughter aren’t as funny as they used to be (???), now that the ugly face of fascism unmasks itself once again both at home and in much of the western world.
The script’s liberal rewriting of history and the story itself will likely pass over the heads of post-cold-war millennials who may be unfamiliar with the events depicted, though it’s possible this unfamiliarity may make the film’s shifting tone more palatable to them. Older viewers may be fascinated by the portrayals of prominent figures that many of us recall as children and young adults, particularly later Soviet Premier Khrushchev of “We Will Bury You” and Cuban Missile Crisis fame. But even those are memories of nuclear-age terror. In any case, many top critics have wet their panties over this movie and it’s hard for me to understand why. There are fine isolated moments, but as a whole, it just doesn’t work. Humor is relative – to culture, to individual perception, and, as nearly 45 years of Saturday Night Live have clearly illustrated, generation. If you love it, you love it, if you don’t you don’t. That’s true of all art, but rarely more so than with this garish mess of a movie.