Who’d have thought the demise of a kill-happy Russian dictator could leave you laughing helplessly? That’s The Death of Stalin for you, a slapstick tragedy – and for the funniest, fiercest comedy of the year so far – from the fertile mind of Armando Iannucci, the British political satirist behind the HBO’s Veep and the sensational, Strangelovian In the Loop (2009). First, imagine a government run by lunatics (In the age of Trump and Kim Jong-un, that’s not so hard.) Then rewind to the Moscow of 1953, when Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) holds his cabinet hostage to his every whim, including the forced watching of John Wayne Westerns. That is, when he’s not preparing the next day’s murder list – a lethal version of Twitter.
Then the old man dies, in a puddle of his own piss, from a stroke brought on by a screw-you note from a pianist comrade (Olga Kurylenko) whose family he’s executed. Cue various party leaders and sycophants plotting to take his place. Not since The Marx Brothers and Monty Python have clowns aspired so uproariously to rise about their station. No one makes an attempt to speak or even sound Russian – all the better for American and British actors to fire off one-liners like a string of joke bullets. They’re totally hilarious.
Adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin flies on the fumes of its own wild, wacky invention. Casting Steve Buscemi, all mirth and malice, as Nikita Khrushchev (!) is just one instance of how Iannucci turns WTF outrageousness into comedy gold. There’s also Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, the conceited buffoon who is the dictator’s deputy; the great Simon Russell Beale as chief of Soviet security and known rapist/murderer Lavrentiy Beria; Python’s own Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, whose wife was imprisoned for treason with his permission; and the sidesplitting Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov, the leader of Russia’s military.
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Then there’s Stalin’s family to consider. Andrea Riseborough brings a fearful intensity to Svetlana, the daughter who feels more vulnerable the more Khrushchev, the next premier, assures her of her safety. And Rupert Friend is volcanically funny as the tantrum-throwing Vasily, the son who doesn’t fall far from dad’s poison tree.
These characters, not as far from reality as you’d assume, would all be easy to mock if they weren’t so dangerous. There’s an unease at the core of Iannucci’s political comedy that gives it bite and purpose. He’s a comic thinker who views politics, past, present and scary future, as a drive for power with little thought for the people being governed. Timely much? The comic darts he throws draw blood. Laugh all you want at this confederacy of political dunces, but you can’t laugh them off. The Death of Stalin holds up a dark comic mirror to a world that’s not hard to recognize as our own.