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Movie Review: Darkness and Humor Don't Mix Well in 'The Death of Stalin'


Published April 4, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 4, 2018 at 10:40 a.m.

Armando Iannucci is arguably the world's greatest living political satirist. Making fun of the pompous and powerful has been his life's calling, and anyone who's seen In the Loop (2009) or "Veep" is grateful the writer-director took that call. Iannucci kicked things off in 1998 with "Clinton: His Struggle With Dirt," a penetrating meditation on how the Monica Lewinski affair might look to the people of 2028. And here he is today, presidential scandals and Russian investigations raging all about, offering his take on Josef Stalin and the power grab following the dictator's demise in 1953.

The filmmaker's latest occupies an unanticipated place in his oeuvre, a body of work that includes politically infused BBC hits like 2004: The Stupid Version (duh), "Time Trumpet" (2006) and "The Thick of It," a series he ran from 2005 to 2012, when he Americanized it into "Veep." For one thing, The Death of Stalin is dark.

Which isn't to suggest fascism can't be funny. Mel Brooks combined Adolf Hitler and comedy in The Producers (1967), but with a touch that was daffy, not dark. Charlie Chaplin had his fun with 1940's The Great Dictator. Again, tragicomic, even poetic, but not dark. The Three Stooges, believe it or not, got there first, satirizing Hitler with "You Nazty Spy!" (1940). Need I say? Not dark.

And this film is funny sometimes, too. How could it not be, with writers like Iannucci, Ian Martin, David Schneider and Peter Fellows? Or with a cast featuring Monty Python alum Michael Palin as elder statesman Vyacheslav Molotov; Jeffrey Tambor as deputy secretary Georgy Malenkov; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, head of the secret police; and Steve Buscemi as maybe the least likely Nikita Khrushchev in the history of casting? From Mr. Pink to Mr. Pinko. That's range.

Nonetheless, the news is not entirely good. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is felled by a stroke early on. The rest of the film is roughly divided into two parts: First, the inner circle members jockey for power as the tyrant clings to life (a running joke has the conspirators warning surgeons that saving Stalin could be hazardous to their health). Then, they jockey for power after he's pronounced dead.

That premise had vast comic potential. Unfortunately, Iannucci never quite finds his sweet spot this time. A conundrum, I suspect, exacerbated by the absence among the picture's scribes of Simon Blackwell, Iannucci's writing partner on nearly every other project mentioned in this piece.

The result? Schindler's List as reimagined by the Marx Brothers. The four principals are real historical figures, of course, monsters responsible for heinous crimes against humanity. I'm not sure the filmmakers find a tone that successfully eunuchizes them into wacky cartoon caballers.

The script is short on political chess. Power is ultimately fallen into ass-backwards, after much slapstick palace intrigue. Remember all the times defenseless victims were summarily executed in Steven Spielberg's classic? There's a lot of that here. Only now it's ... funny? And then there's Beria's serial raping of underage girls. I'm still hunting for the humor.

As I say, the movie has its moments. Just way fewer than expected and than many reviewers have promised. Its biggest laughs pack less punch than throwaways from In the Loop. For example, Tambor's simpleton deputy secretary, Stalin's rightful successor, spends hours posing for his official photograph, then announces, "I'd like to try one with a faraway look."

I never thought I'd say this about an Iannucci work, but, right about then, faraway was starting to look pretty good.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Death of Stalin"