Seriously. Is the Death of Stalin funny? Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny? I’m asking for a friend.
Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?
Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev! He’s brilliant, as per usual. Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi). But is the performance…funny? I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how? Funny how it looks? How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev? Funny ha-ha?
Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece. What’s his end-game? A correlation to Putin’s Russia? Trump’s America? Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos? Is this a cautionary tale?
There’s a lot of great stuff here. Early on, an accomplished pianist (Olga Kurylenko) who has a personal vendetta against Stalin is called out by a radio producer for an “unauthorized act of narcissism” – a hilarious charge while living under the regime of a complete narcissist. Also present is Iannucci’s trademark depictions of the absurdities of protocol (and, on the flip side, the chaos in the complete lack thereof). There’s a running gag of various Committee leaders spouting off viciously at errand-folk and servants who need approval on every bit of minutia, only to “so sorry” them in a very British manner moments later. The whole cast is British (hey, look, it’s Monty Python alum Michael Palin, everyone!) and wisely nobody attempts a bad Russian accent. It’s all very…funny.
The costumes, set design, music, editing, etc…are all polished and top-notch.
It’s all so well done. Which makes the serious bits…and the warning (oh, how I hope we all live to look back on today and laugh the same way)…all that more terrifying.
Billed as a “Comedy of Terrors”…The Death of Stalin is spot-on. Like Greek Comedy (as in not that different from Greek Tragedy) level spot-on. That’s not very funny…is it?
Written by David H. Schleicher