If we have to have more comic book movies, can they please be like The Death of Stalin? Adapted by “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci, along with David Schneider and Ian Martin, from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin plays like Dr. Strangelove by way of Monty Python — in the best possible sense that comparison can connote — delivering pitch-black farce with a timely sociopolitical sentiment in perfect balance. It’s a film that somehow manages to be hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, uncommonly intelligent and uniquely merciless. Its jokes come at a rapid-fire pace so disarming that you never really get a chance to pause and think about the terrifying real-world implications of what’s unfolding onscreen.
And that’s good, because this one could give you nightmares if you thought too deeply about what it’s really saying beneath the buffoonery. The film opens at the height of Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) reign of terror and sticks largely to the historical facts surrounding the dictator’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1953 and the power struggle that ensued. But just because it plays the events largely straight doesn’t mean that Iannucci doesn’t leave himself room to lampoon the amoral and self-serving monsters in Stalin’s sphere, and the ensemble cast Iannucci has collected is more than up to the challenge of meeting his vicious satire on its own terms.
Found unconscious in a puddle of his own urine, Stalin is surrounded by his closest advisers, all of whom have raced to reach the scene first in an attempt to secure their relative positions in the resultant power vacuum. Although Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the heir apparent, it seems to be Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the murderous Soviet security forces, who’s really poised to take charge. But to do so, he’ll have to outwit Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), a shrewd operator who has his wife take notes on which jokes Stalin laughed at following dinner parties.
Deepening the Pythonian association is the presence of Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, implausibly loyal to Stalin despite his wife’s imprisonment and the revelation that he himself was next up on the chopping block. While Palin’s role is somewhat marginal, his casting gives some sense of the anarchy Iannucci is trying to impart to his film. This is the kind of movie where Beria and Khrushchev engage in a juvenile footrace to comfort Stalin’s grieving daughter, where Beria’s rape of a young servant girl is treated as a throwaway gag. Iannucci’s humor is as brutal as anything Buñuel ever put out and almost as surreal.
In an era that sees the likes of Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-Un play a game of nuclear chicken with the fate of the world at stake, Iannucci’s unremittingly bleak look at totalitarianism couldn’t be more aptly timed. By giving due ridicule to the ridiculous, he’s made a statement more impactful than anything the Mueller probe might uncover and struck a blow for rationality by conversely exposing the irrational mechanisms of power that can lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people. The fact that The Death of Stalin is profoundly funny is something of a bonus, though just how hard you laugh will be distinctly dependent upon your sensibilities. Rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.