With his second feature comedy The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci pulls off a balancing act that’s more remarkable the more you think about it: this is a movie that’s both mercilessly grim and uproariously funny. It’s the blackest of black comedies, set in the Soviet Union circa 1953, as security forces routinely gathered and executed citizens who’d made their way onto General Secretary Joseph Stalin’s enemies list, and concerns the manner in which his underlings undercut each other when he’s found near death on the floor of his office. Yet its bleakness is offset by its anarchic spirit, which summons up the ghosts of Duck Soup, Million Dollar Legs, and other screwball skewerings of authoritarianism.
Its period trappings are atypical for co-writer/director Ianucci, best known for the blistering contemporary political satire The Thick of It, that show’s spin-off film In the Loop, and its American extension Veep. But the focus remains squarely on his favorite topic: pettiness and incompetence in government. The frustrations of Selena Meyer’s team aren’t far removed from Stalin’s underlings, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who offset their barely-veiled tolerance of “the old man” and his whims by breaking each other’s balls.
But when Stalin keels over on his office rug, and is discovered the next morning in a pool of his own piss (or, as it’s called, a “puddle of indignity”), his loyal men immediately begin forming alliances and conspiring against each other, embarking on a campaign of verbal jabs, backstage maneuvers, and sneering indignities. The Death of Stalin is based on historical fact (and a graphic novel), but the real subject here, as it often is in Ianucci’s work, is the insecurities of small men; there’s a moment when Buscemi’s Khrushchev spits the line “Don’t you laugh at me” at a woman who’s made a fool of him, and it plays like the thesis of the entire movie.
The screenplay, credited to Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, is a smorgasbord of running gags, circular logic, non-sequiturs, the aforementioned black comedy (handing out an executions list, Beria commands, “Shoot her before him, make sure he sees it”) and deliriously broad characterizations. Tambor is magnificently Tambor, playing to his strengths of blusteringly ignorant authority (“People are looking to me for reassurance, and I have no idea what’s going on”) and total spinelessness, while Rupert Friend, as Stalin’s fuck-up son, elevates the blowhard doofus to high art. Andrea Riseborough banks as many laughs as her verbose co-stars by the sheer indignity of her reaction shots. And it’s an absolute joy to hear Michael Palin spewing Ianucci’s dialogue, considering the clear influence of Monty Python on his warped sensibility. But the standout performance is Buscemi’s, who manages to both convey and satirize genuine menace, often simultaneously. (He also gets a new entry in the Iannucci Insult Hall of Fame: “You smell like rendered horse, you burning asshole!”)
Ultimately, the comic genius of The Death of Stalin lies in its surface: in many ways, it both looks and sounds like your typical, fancy period historical drama, up to and including the inaccurate British accents. But the people inhabiting those period trappings are patently ridiculous, so the authenticity of their surroundings renders their buffoonery all the more laughable. Call it the Young Frankenstein Principle, and the fact that this film warrants comparison to that one should be all the recommendation you need.
The Death of Stalin premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Jason Bailey is film editor at Flavorwire. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece, was published last fall by Voyageur Press. His writing has also appeared at The Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and The Village Voice, among others. Follow him on Twitter.