THE DEATH OF STALIN

THE DEATH OF STALIN

 
 
 

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1hr 47min

The one-liners fly as fast as political fortunes fall in this uproarious, wickedly irreverent satire from Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop). Moscow, 1953: when tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin drops dead, his parasitic cronies square off in a frantic power struggle to be the next Soviet leader. Among the contenders are the dweeby Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the sadistic secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). But as they bumble, brawl, and backstab their way to the top, just who is running the government? Combining palace intrigue with rapid-fire farce, this audacious comedy is a bitingly funny takedown of bureaucratic dysfunction performed to the hilt by a sparkling ensemble cast.

 

A crackling, whip-smart satire that cuts to the bone of governmental power struggles, “The Death of Stalin” has a timely urgency that mirrors today’s political chaos.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci is an ace at this, having also made 2009’s Iraq war send-up “In the Loop” and created HBO’s political satire “Veep.” He’s able to cut through the artifice of politics and cast its players as sniveling, power-hungry dolts, and he’s able to take uncomfortable situations and cut everyone down to size, making them relatable to all.

Here he takes on the 1953 death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the tumult that followed. He starts off with a scene in a concert hall, where a symphony has just been performed. Stalin phones the venue and wants a recording, but no tape was rolling. So a bumbling sound engineer is forced have the performance repeated so it can be taped rather than telling Stalin no, since that would inevitably lead to his execution.

When Stalin keels over, members of his Central Committee — Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Isaacs form a tremendous, impenetrable ensemble — assemble, bickering and fighting over the scraps like dogs. Iannucci — he co-wrote the script with David Schneider and his fellow “Veep”-er Ian Martin — creates hysterical situations, with dialogue that pops off like lit firecrackers. “Christ, you look like you’re about to be bulldozed into a lime pit,” Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev tells Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov at one point.

“The Death of Stalin” is a deep farce, but it is rooted in enough political reality that it hardly feels sensationalized. And given the current state of politics, it’s as on-point as a breaking news alert.

-Adam Graham