Armando Iannucci is one the world’s greatest living satirists. His hilarious depictions of governmental dysfunction give a cartoonish gloss to the hectic nature of real-life leadership. The British satirist’s two rambunctious TV shows — BBC’s “The Thick of It” and HBO’s “Veep” — along with his Oscar-nominated “In the Loop,” show a consistent knack for exposing deranged bureaucracies and the power-hungry, backstabbing lunatics who think they own the place.
In Iannucci’s tilted world of feuding diplomats and narcissistic leaders, scathing one-liners meet the bitter pill of lost causes. He anticipated the modern era of political corruption and remains its greatest truth-teller, so it was only a matter of time before he applied that same uncompromising humor towards earlier periods hobbled by the same authoritarian problems.
Enter “The Death of Stalin.” Iannucci’s first adapted work culls from French writers Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel (Nury has a screenwriting credit, but the bulk of the writing is credited to Iannucci along with David Schneider and Ian Martin) to tell an embellished story about the fallout of the Soviet tyrant’s demise, and the mad scramble among his various underlings as they claw their way to replacing him. Iannucci’s prickly British wit easily transports to 1953 Russia, in part because he makes no effort to diminish the Cockney and American accents among the English-speaking cast, nor the vulgar outbursts that make the rest of his work such a twisted joy. It’s “Veep” in the Soviet Union, a welcome expansion of Iannucci’s canvas that keeps his savage comedy intact.
In more ways than one, this is vintage Iannucci. Though the rusty color palette and sweeping camera work indicate a more polished cinematic eye, it’s clear that the material belongs to Iannucci from the moment one character opens his mouth. It’s backstage at a symphony that just wrapped up for the night when a call arrives from Stalin himself asking for a recording; since none exists, the manager scrambles to force patrons back into the theater and make the musicians start over again. This event also opens the source material, but Iannucci turns up the momentum, with smarmy overlapping dialogue and insult comedy zipping along at a rapid-fire pace.
Morbid hijinks ensue: A composer is deposed, another nabbed from his home in the dead of the night, and insults fly left and right. Then comes the biggest threat: The pianist (Olga Kurylenko) refuses to play for the General Secretary because he killed most of her family. So they talk about a bribe. Everything seems to be going according to schedule until she slips a damning note to Stalin into the recording that ultimately precipitates his demise when it makes him laugh a little too hard. This is just the opening movement to a grand satire driven by profound cynicism about self-obsessed leaders — “Duck Soup” with real dictators.
With Stalin out of the picture, the role of leader falls to Georgy Malenkov, played by Jeffrey Tambor with a ridiculous wig and a baffled expression that’s a constant source of grim hilarity; he’s more obsessed with finding a child who posed with Stalin for a famous photograph to recreate the image than figuring out how to handle the dead man’s policies. As with the visionary D.C. satire “In the Loop,” nobody spends much time discussing real policies or political philosophies in “The Death of Stalin”; they’re merely a backdrop for voracious men drunk on their vain, egotistical drives.
And so the snake pit assembles for a devious game of thrones. The scowling deputy premier Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) attempts to maintain order while privately scheming to overtake Malenkov, but he meets his match with the motor-mouthed Nikita Khrushchev, a fellow deputy played by no less than Steve Buscemi doing his usual dyspeptic Steve Buscemi. The new context — horrible would-be dictator spouting foul-mouthed orders in every direction — gives the actor one of his most enjoyable roles in years, a delightfully salty riff on the corruptive nature of power.
As Stalin’s brain trust makes a frantic attempt to organize Stalin’s funeral, familiar faces come and go. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) has no patience for any of the commandeering men attempting to organize her father’s legacy, while his son Vasily (Rupert Friend) shows up as a hot mess, demanding he make a speech at the public memorial as the leaders exchange worried expressions about his mental stability.
It’s the little moments that make this crazed romp so enjoyable. At first news of Stalin’s illness, Buscemi’s Khrushchev dashes into headquarters wearing his suit over his pajamas, and when he’s questioned about the decision, he barks back, “It’s because I act!” Elsewhere, the bumbling circumstances belie the darker context of the regime in play. The Soviets can’t find a decent doctor to help Stalin in his final moments, because they’ve all been shipped off to the gulag. “I’m exhausted,” says one man, “I can’t remember who’s alive or dead.”
The banter often steals the show, and in some cases, simplifies the satire. At times it seems as though Iannucci were content to hum along, vignette-style, with no interest in bringing his story to a grand crescendo. But the bulk of the one-liners actually serve this wily portrait of conceited men, who never waste an opportunity to knock each other down a few notches. (“I have a bad back,” says one, and the response comes without hesitation: “Too much social climbing.”)
Eventually, “The Death of Stalin” crystallizes into a comic portrait of the circumstances that led to a violent coup, with Khrushchev overtaking Stalin’s role under deadly circumstances from which even Iannucci can’t mine a punchline. Even so, he finds his way to a shrewd denouement that ranks as one of the sharpest examples of his sarcastic vision.
“The Death of Stalin” marks the first instance in which Iannucci has applied his style to real-life figures, and it’s as though he has crafted a historical foundation for the rest of his work. There are obvious parallels to modern times in “The Death of Stalin,” and the way the movie transforms a dark chapter of Soviet history into a bubbly workplace comedy suggests that history’s greatest villains always take themselves too seriously — so why should we? Viewed in the broader context of Iannucci’s work, “The Death of Stalin” amounts to a complete dose of the absurdity that defines his vision. Selfish leaders come and go, but no matter who winds up on top, it’s only a matter of time before somebody topples the tower all over again.
“The Death of Stalin” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. IFC Films will release it in 2018.