Armando Iannucci’s latest comedy goes for history’s jugular and finds a mouthful of present-day atrocities.
Half the excitement of Fantastic Fest is anticipating the secret screening. Rumors run the gamut of everything from your wildest dreams (The Shape of Water, the recently wrapped Jeremy Saulnier film) to your darkest nightmares (Jigsaw, Death Wish). Sitting in an overstuffed theater (fold-out chairs parked on the aisle steps) filled with hungry cinephiles frothing with desire creates a near impossible task of pleasing expectations. When the IFC Films logo lit the screen last Monday night my brain buzzed through an internal catalog of possibilities. When The Death of Stalin title card finally revealed itself, the emotional response was somewhere between disappointment and contentment. After all, Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop was a savagely funny takedown of political ego, but he’s not the flashiest of genre directors that this crowd often lusts after.
The Death of Stalin is a dry, silly pummeling of a government we’ve spent 75 years demonizing in the west, but lands painfully familiar in our current era of looming dictatorship. Watching Paddy Considine bend over backward, fighting common sense and decency to orchestrate an unplanned second performance of the Moscow symphony is stomach churning. Piling absurdities on top of absurdities deliver on the laughs but every comedic beat is backed with a real threat of violence. Fail the whims of Stalin and a quick bullet to the head is your reward. Throughout the staging of the set piece, we see innocent bystanders in the background shuffling to their deaths. A chuckle is often preceded with a jolt of violence and sometimes that violence is there for the chuckle. Iannucci has your shame with each smile.
Set during the last days of Joseph Stalin, we’re the audience to a grotesque power-play performed by maniacal simpletons. We watch as historical figures, that we barely have an understanding of beyond an elementary level, two-faced and backstab their way through a chain of command crumbling around them. The feeding frenzy is atrociously silly until you realize that the re-run symphonies, missing national hockey teams, and barnyard executions are 100% accurate. By the time Jason Isaacs reveals himself in all his slow-motion glory as General Zhukov you can’t tell the humor from the dread. It’s a viciously tyrannical story that easily allows you the opportunity to populate the narrative with our current administration. It should be too vicious to mock.
The incongruous casting has a “yeah, so what?” attitude that you’ll either admire or outright reject. Yet Michael Palin, Jeffery Tambor, and Simon Beale are no more distracting than an atrocious Russian accent. The defiant nature of stuffing Steve Buscemi into the rotund weasel of Nikita Khrushchev is less about sticking it to history and more about amplifying the preposterousness nature of the events. Adrian McLoughlin wears Joseph Stalin’s face like a high school production. Caked in latex and eyebrows, McLoughlin strengthens the terrifyingly buffoonish ideas of a mad ego. If you’re going to play Comrade you might as well PLAY.
The Death of Stalin goes for the cheap laughs only to highlight the horror of the not-too-distant past and an utterly possible future. It spits in the face of decorum and laughs at our awkward response. Armando Iannucci is obviously having a blast stirring the pot, watching his audience teeter and squirm. It’s all so dumb, but mostly, it’s wickedly relevant.