With the keen, sacrileges skewering of a Monty Python flick and the brisk energy of a “Arrested Development” episode”The Death of Stalin” pokes and prods at geopolitical affairs without devolving into a tedious world history lecture. Director Armando Iannucci utilizes his proven penchant for capturing comedy in times of crisis, previously seen in his 2009 political romp, “In The Loop.” “Stalin,” though, proves to be a more formidable funny tale, a deft dissection of Russian history that makes us oh so glad to be laughing back in the U.S.S.R.
The most remarkable thing about this movie isn’t that it’s funny, but that it’s true. In fact, we have no doubt that things actually happened this way in the wake of Stalin’s death, because Iannucci shows us just how much coverups and political posturing was taking place behind the scenes. For most comedies, absurdity and truthfulness run in opposite directions, but for “The Death of Stalin,” the line of zaniness is perfectly parallel to reality.
The year is 1953. Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is a feared director and megalomaniac in charge of the Soviet Union. Common citizens live in fear as well as Stalin’s close advisers, constantly flashing smiles and telling humorous stories to stay on his good side. These advisers, like Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), are powerful but fearful men, who order imprisonments and executions on Stalin’s behalf with the carefree ease of ordering Chinese food.
Then Stalin dies. It’s a scenario that was bound to happen at some point, but Beria, Malenkov and Khruschev are befuddled on what to do now that it actually has happened. Malenkov obliviously twiddles his thumbs as the de facto puppet leader, while Beria and Khruschev take turn pulling his strings while keeping the country censored from the show.
All of this facade-building, double-crossing, and point blank head shooting creates a kinetic environment of comedic energy. Characters bounce off each other like speeding molecules, with storylines being reintroduced with perfect timing, so no plot point ever feels overemphasized or underutilized. It’s even exhausting at points to watch”The Death of Stalin,” as constant focus to the story is required to make sure you’re getting full comedic impact.
That focus and dedication is worth it though, as “The Death of Stalin” is one of the freshest and most irreverent comedies in recent decades. Tambor is in top form as the blustering Malenkov, and Buscemi transforms into the commanding yet anxious Khruschev. This movie doesn’t prove that fact is funnier than fiction, but rather there is always humor to be found in the absurdity of political bureaucracies