Review: "The Death of Stalin"

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A film about the final days of Joseph Stalin, and the aftermath, done as a comedy? Well you better believe it, Armando Iannucci's "The Death of Stalin," adapted from the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, flies on the fumes of its own wild, wacky invention. It's unlike anything I have seen before. Its mix of slapstick laughs mixed with stunning tragedy is rarely done in this kind of brilliantly realized way. Iannucci is the British political satirist that gave us 2009's nastily comedic "In the Loop," which took place in British parliament, and, more importantly, HBO's Veep, which had a never-better Julia Louis-Dreyfuss scrambling to maintain sanity in a rambunctious White House she wants to take over as her own.

"The Death of Stalin" is the riskiest of these endeavors, the lunatics that were in charge of Moscow in 1953, when Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) dictated what his cabinet could and could not do, had to watch John Wayne westerns at a 24/7 cycle, that is when he didn't order them to gather up innocents, people against his own ideals, to be killed on a daily, hell hourly, basis. That's not the movie. Stalin has to die, and what a death it is. A pianist (Olga Kurylenko), that lost all of her family in the hands of Stalin, sneaks in a letter to his office, the supreme leader reads it, the words filled with rebellious malice towards the dictator, which causes him to have a stroke, dead in a puddle of his own piss. 

The party leaders, his closest comrades, justifyingly freak out, that is until they realize they can take his place as leader of the motherland. The uproarious way these buffoons try to rise ranks is the movie, smart move on Iannucci's part as he uses slapstick, physical comedy, to tackle a dark time in history.  Nobody even tries to sound Russian, American and British actors are part of the cast, best of all is Steve Buscemi playing Nikita Khrushchev, a genius stroke of casting. Jeffrey Tambor is Georgy Malenkov, Stalin's deputy and the supposed heir to the throne, Simon Russell Beale is the chief of Soviet security, not to mention serial rapist, Lavrentiy Beria; Michael Palin is Vyacheslav Molotov and Jason Isaacs, Georgy Zhukov, the Russian military's leader who might just be the only commendable voice of reason, even if he's a war criminal in every which way imaginable. 

While this mad scrambling is happening at the Kremlin, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), Stalin's daughter,  shows up to try and understand what has happened to dear old Daddy. The death bed scene is one for the ages as the cabinet, Svetlana and her brother Vasily (Rupert Friend), a firecraker waiting to explode and an obvious example of genetics being passed on from father to son, gather around dear old leader. Stalin's kids are justifiably scared for their lives,, but Khrushchev assures them they are safe. There is never any time to mock these characters because their actions, although hilariously perceived, are inherently dangerous throughout this farce. 

There's always been a link with all of Iannucci's work as screenwriter, here is a man that believes in the inherent human condition's crave for power and all the falsely acknowledged glory that comes with it. The characters he's written about for most of his career have a craving to make it to the top of the food chain, at any cost. Timely, to say the least. Iannucci's view of government, the way it is shaped, how it works on a day to day basis, is, quite clearly, dog-eat-dog. It took a 54-year-old British political satirist to re-confirm that on TV and at the movies, because,  the themes and stories that he touches are risky and could easily offend the most ardent supporters of a constitution, people still believe in, that has ran amok these last few years.

Iannucci and his c0-screenwriters David Schneider and Ian Martin, are fearless in their attempts to mix the comic with the tragic. It all accumulates in a ferocious darkness of hate, which envelops the film's final few minutes. These final few moments make you rethink the comic darts that were layed upon us previously. In "The Death of Stalin," a rambling, messy, fascinating film, the laughs come with a poisonous sting.  [B+]