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TIFF: Iannucci Goes to Russia for "The Death of Stalin"

by Chris Feil

Armando Iannucci has another high farce with The Death of Stalin, an almost operatic comedy of power struggles and masculine posturing. Based on the comic books by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film is a gleefully anachronistic satire that will feel all too uncomfortably close to our current reality. This makes for a more charged tone than Iannucci’s previous contemporary political skewering. But fear not: his comic mind has stayed unpretentious. As ever, it’s his subjects that take themselves all too seriously.

The demise of the titular dictator sets his entire cabinet rushing towards the seat of power like flies to shit, resulting in ample backstabbing calculations and gross incompetencies of the Iannucci variety. The cast is loaded with broad buffoonery: Jeffrey Tambor’s sensitive dolt and temporary Stalin supplant, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as the frazzled Stalin children, Jason Isaacs Statham-esque military leader. Steve Buscemi geniusly plays Khrushchev as if the film were a mob film - which, you know, it essentially is.

If it sounds like a lot of similar players in this farce that’s because it’s true that they kind of all blend together, and play much from the same comic register. In it's characterizations, the film reveals how it simply throws everything at the wall to see what sticks rather than keeping the moments measured. Simon Russell Beale is the devilish best in show for delivering the film’s most distinct character as the calculating Lavrentiy Beria, a performance as equally invested in distinguishing his particular manipulative vileness as well as earning any laughs.

Iannucci remains one of our chief satirists even if The Death of Stalin eventually tips past the breaking point of his chaotic rhythms. If the film is an equal to kind of comic highs that he has reached with the likes of In The Loop and the first seasons of Veep, it doesn’t however match their scabrous precision. His loose and furious style is a bit too chaotic here, making for a film that goes off the rail once it concludes on more serious notes. Not exactly the kind of sourness the film appears to be aiming for.

For better and worse, this is a wild beast of a comedy, untamed in its hilarious bravado but also in need of some stricter shepherding. If the film is a step back in form for Iannucci, it does represent a step forward creatively in terms of scale for his usually modest productions. To go with the comedic boisterousness, he matches with design flourishes and musical extremity that also enhance its displacement in time with all the crassness being lobbed.

The laughs of The Death of Stalin come ferociously and exhaustively, but you’ll wish the film cut a little deeper.

Grade: B- (but laughs: A-)

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Reader Comments (7)

Omg look at Steve Buscemi. Must seee this. Although "Look Who's Back" was decent, it made me severely uncomfortable for even vaguely sympathizing with an evil dictator, so I hope this is strays from that.

September 9, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris

Iannucci... "In the Loop" was my pick for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Peter Capaldi) in 2009. And still is.

So yeah, count me IN.

September 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

This sounds weeeeiiirrrd. Maybe unmissably so. Interested to see if/how they handle what could be a jarring mix of tones.

September 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

I so glad Armando Iannucci exists. His sketch show is all on YouTube and it definitely lay the groundwork for what was to come.

September 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSeán

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June 18, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterpriya

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