It’s not every comedy that ends with an execution. But in writer/director Armando Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, the subject matter is the final days of a homicidal tyrant, so an execution fits right in to the proceedings. This absurdist comedy sets its sights on the inefficiency of government bureaucracy and the delusional policies that are undertaken when a leader’s advisers must be sycophants first and a think tank second. All similarities to modern-day America are entirely coincidental. Or are they?
Stalin is uniformly feared by the general populace as well as his inner circle. You must laugh at the boss’s jokes and agree with his policies. Any disagreement or perceived disagreement may put you on the list to be purged. When the Soviet dictator suffers a massive stroke, the struggle to fill the power vacuum begins. Is it time to push for reform as Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) advocates? Or is it time to double down on the policies of a deceased dictator as Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) wishes to do?
This doesn’t exactly sound like fodder for a comedy, but The Death of Stalin is in fact one of the funniest films of 2017. That’s no real surprise since it comes from Armando Iannucci, the writer behind Veep, In the Loop and Alan Partridge. This satire has a real bite to it. The political backstabbing comes at such a rapid-fire pace that it has an almost slapstick quality to it.
The centerpiece of the film is the committee meeting convened by Stalin’s inner circle to chart the course of the country in the immediate aftermath of the dictator’s death. The tactics taken by each member of the committee to avoid adopting a specific position on the issues is nothing short of hilarious, and it gives a whole new meaning to the idea of a unanimous vote. The audience can only imagine that meetings are occurring in this exact same manner on a daily basis in Washington, D.C.
Every good comedy has an element of truth to it, and some of the funniest moments in the film are based entirely on real events. As the dictator hovers near death following his stroke, his advisers try to find quality medical care for their fallen leader only to discover that the best medical minds in the country have either been executed or sent to a gulag. Because his men are too afraid to interrupt his work by checking on him, Stalin lies on the floor of his office for half of a day before he is discovered by the cleaning lady. Fact is often stranger than fiction, and in the case of The Death of Stalin, it’s funnier, too.
The Death of Stalin is a witty film filled with brilliant repartee between the characters. However, this type of humor doesn’t appeal to everyone, and some of the audience at Fantastic Fest left disappointed. Oddly, many of these same people thought Yorgos Lanthimos’ dour new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer was hilarious. Comedy is certainly a matter of personal taste. And for me, The Death of Stalin provided a hilarious break from the onslaught of great genre films at Fantastic Fest 2017.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.