The death of a world leader is an odd subject for a comedy, particularly when the man in question was a brutal dictator who ran his country with an iron fist. But that’s what Armando Iannucci, who also created the HBO series “Veep,” gives us with “The Death Of Stalin.”
The movie is a satire about the scramble for power by the higher-ups who wanted to replace Josef Stalin after he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1953. The two main rivals were Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, and Lavrenti Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale. They are supported by Jeffrey Tambor (as the dopey second-in-command who rises to the top temporarily) and Michael Palin (a member of the committee who had been marked for assassination by Stalin but gets a reprieve), among others. The mostly British cast makes no effort to speak Russian or even a bad Russian accent a la Jennifer Lawrence in “Red Sparrow,” so there’s very little need for subtitles.
Buscemi is simply great as then-minister-of-agriculture Khrushchev, and has real chemistry with Beale as his adversary, the head of the secret police. The rest of the committee comes off like a Keystone Kops version of a Greek chorus.
There’s some sharp satire in “The Death of Stalin,” as well as some silliness. There’s a very funny sequence with Paddy Considine (star of the wonderful but under-seen 2002 Jim Sheridan movie “In America“) as the director of a broadcast of a live classical music concert that goes fairly smoothly until Stalin himself calls and asks for a recording of the show — which doesn’t exist. And you wouldn’t want to be one of the doctors called in to examine Stalin’s corpse because to declare him dead might be akin to signing your own suicide note. Much of the comedy is very dark, indeed, with slapstick scenes played out in the foreground while people are brutally shot or tortured in the background.
I have mixed feelings about the movie. While I loved the cast and Iannucci’s sometimes-breathless pacing, I felt like I’d fallen into a British farce that was missing a few slamming doors and curious butlers. I can’t quite recommend that you spend money to see “The Death Of Stalin” in its arthouse run, but you might want to add it to your Netflix queue or find it on DVD, where it should be available in a few months.
I give “The Death Of Stalin” a 5 out of 10.