L.A. Weekly film critic April Wolfe is reporting for us from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Dictators are a certain kind of selfish, insecure insanity made manifest, and if you’re going to study them, Joseph Stalin is a good place to start. “Stalin” wasn’t even his real name. When he was 30, he changed it, so it would be “man of steel” in Russian — imagine the hubris! So touchy about his pockmarked face, Stalin hired multiple airbrush artists to fix it in photos, then shot any photographer who didn’t make him look nice. One time, he caught a live radio concert from Soviet pianist Maria Yudina, and he forced her and the entire orchestra to immediately redo and record the full concert for him in the middle of the night.
That last story is actually where Armando Iannucci’s (literally) insanely funny period ensemble comedy The Death of Stalin begins, with a frazzled concert director (Paddy Considine) getting a phone call from the dictator himself, then forcibly corralling the audience back to their seats. Calmly, in a sing-song voice, he tells them, “Don’t woooorry, nobody is going to get killed” before finally losing his shit: “Sit down! Do not defy me!”
It’s a typical night in the Soviet capital, where death squads merrily round up citizens for execution. But inside the Kremlin, the air is thick with paranoia. Stalin’s cabinet — Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) — compete for the dictator’s attention and approval. They’re at his whims whenever he suddenly wants to watch a John Wayne movie with buddies at 2 a.m. At home, Khrushchev lists off to his wife the jokes he tells to Stalin, while she takes notes. He says, “I made a joke about the farmers. He laughed. I made a joke about the navy. He didn’t laugh.” They agree: No more navy jokes.
When Stalin falls into a coma, Dear Leader still has a stranglehold on his buddies, who all tentatively dip their toes in the water to see when they can drop the loyalty act. They need to get a doctor but mourn that they have already killed all the good ones. “What if,” someone suggests, “we get a bad doctor?” An uncomfortable pause and glances around the room to see who’s going to protest — and someone always protests. The looks on all their dejected faces when they have to keep the loyalty charade going is ghoulish fun. It is like getting an Oval Office front-row seat to Survivor: Trump Edition.
If there’s any filmmaker attuned to the idiosyncrasies and inanity of politics right now, it is Iannucci, whose searing satire on Veep (and British version The Thick of It, plus the movie In the Loop) is filthy and honest, leaving you groaning and cringing. Stalin is Veep drunk on vodka, or Veep and Glengarry Glen Ross scheming in a cold Soviet alley — ALWAYS BE SCHEMING!
There’s no one performance to single out here. Iannucci gives each character a distinct tic or a minor annoyance that sets them off. Tambor as Malenkov urinates against a tree, saying, “When I piss, I try to make eye contact with an officer. It ruins their day.” Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana channels Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer when she seamlessly interrupts her own teary monologue to complain about a lamp on a chair — “Who would put a lamp on a chair?” Khrushchev and Molotov carry on about the treasonous bitch Polina (Molotov’s wife), thinking she’s dead, until Beria produces her. “Oh, Polina, it’s so great to see youuuu!” they whine.
This is classic comedy gold, in many ways reminiscent of the old Monty Python show sketches skewering politicians, but with a slightly more serious spin; Palin as Molotov seems especially at home. The bonus is that the film looks good, too. This is some serious production design and costuming for a comedy. Stalin may be responsible for 20 million deaths, so it’s welcome that here he’s the butt of a million jokes.