The Death of Stalin
Edwin Arnaudin: Though based on a comic book series, The Death of Stalin has writer/director Armando Iannucci’s fingerprints all over it. The man behind the decidedly modern political satires In the Loop and HBO’s Veep once more deals in rapid-fire comedy and childish, power-hungry adults making decisions with global consequences. That approach works wonders for me in a contemporary setting, but do you think his brand of humor translates well to early 1950s Moscow?
Bruce Steele: I would say yes, although he has had to modify his approach a bit, since he’s making satire out of historical atrocities, a tricky business. I would recommend Iannucci’s In the Loop, a fast-paced British political farce, but I tired quickly of Veep, which had too many stupid people doing stupid things to hold my interest. The upside to Stalin is that these are not stupid people, for the most part, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. I’m pretty sure the audience’s discomfort over the film’s flippant treatment of torture and executions is intentional. Did you wince a lot?
Edwin: I did! Even with six seasons of Veep in my viewing history (Iannucci departed the show after the fourth), its biting, insult-based humor still stings and I had a similar experience here. The blunt violence on display in Stalin is a new touch, but feels consistent with the verbal slaughter his past characters have doled out and necessary to properly convey an extremely dangerous situation.
Bruce: My problem with Veep was that it mostly seemed petty. The insults were often funny, but the real human impact of governing didn’t seem a concern. But here Iannucci’s dealing with historical figures whose criminal insensitivity to human suffering is really the point. He and his many co-writers do a good job, I thought, of giving each awful man his own pathology. And thank goodness, unlike the abysmal Red Sparrow, almost everyone in the cast just speaks in his own accent. Did you have a favorite?
Edwin: It’s an easy choice, but I’ve got to go with Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. As you note, there’s an extra layer of fun with having most of the performers talk as they normally would, and casting the story's biggest non-Stalin figure with one of our most oddball and distinctly American character actors in fluent Brooklynese is consistently hilarious. Who stands out to you?
Bruce: Our echo chamber is back! Yes, definitely Buscemi. This performance isn’t especially fresh for the actor, but there’s no one better at playing an egoist who’s unfazed by bloodshed, or who sees violence merely as either a tool to get what he wants or an irksome impediment — think Reservoir Dogs, Fargo and Boardwalk Empire. I’d give Jeffrey Tambor a close second as Malenkov, Stalin’s jittery lapdog deputy and inept successor. It’s quite a shift from Transparent.
Edwin: Malenkov is a textbook Iannucci buffoon and has a good deal in common with Tambor's George Bluth from Arrested Development. Also fun in the tradition of Peter Capaldi's no-nonsense Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop is Jason Isaacs, earning laughs while remaining his usual fierce self as over-decorated military leader Zhukov. Then there’s Rupert Friend as Stalin’s inept son and Paddy Considine as a stressed out radio producer, whose exploits nicely bookend the film. It’s a strong ensemble for sure.
Bruce: I agree. Isaacs especially is a welcome addition to the ensemble, showing up at least a third of the way into the movie, just when it needs a good kick. Perhaps because it’s based (loosely) on facts, Stalin isn’t as snappy as Iannucci’s other works. He can’t just keep cracking jokes; he’s got history to impart. So the movie has stretches of exposition — rounding people up, protestors facing rifles, and so on — that sober you up.
Edwin: …only to be followed by more jokes. Even in its darkest moments, the cast finds room for something silly. The lines and slapstick don’t always connect, but they keep the mood from becoming overly bleak. As for its educational aspects, I won’t be giving a history lecture any time soon with this film as my primary source, but it does make me want to look up basic bios of the central players and compare them with their onscreen versions.
Bruce: Well, it just so happens there’s an Asheville Movie Guys screening of the movie at 7 p.m. March 26 at the Fine Arts Theatre in downtown Asheville, and that’s one of the things we’ll be doing! Better warm up your Wikipedia.
Edwin: I look forward to it, and to seeing Stalin with an audience. Much as I enjoyed my first viewing, home alone on my laptop’s screen, I’m curious if Monday's communal experience will bump my A-minus up half a grade.
Bruce: I’m also keen to see an audience’s reaction, and to enjoy the film with more company than my cats, who don’t laugh much. I do think it’s a difficult movie in many ways, and borderline offensive for anyone sympathetic to Stalin’s victims, but I’m also confident that Iannucci is aware of that and barreled forward, energized by the challenge. He succeeds more than not, but I’ll start with a B-plus grade and see how that changes with better viewing circumstances. Looking forward to March 26! And for anyone who has read this far, I’ll tease another special feature at that screening: Birthday cake! I’ll say no more.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre
(Photos: IFC Films)
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