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Black comedies don’t come much blacker than 'The Death of Stalin'

'Stalin' stars a marvelous crew of comic actors, including Rupert Friend, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Palin.

'The Death of Stalin' stars (from l.) Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Paul Chahidi.
Nicola Dove/IFC Films/AP
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( R )
  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

Black comedies don’t come much blacker than “The Death of Stalin,” the latest satiric whirligig from co-writer and director Armando Iannucci, best known in the United States for “In the Loop” and HBO’s “Veep.” The perfervid skullduggery of politics really juices him.

Based on a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin and co-written by Iannucci's frequent collaborators, David Schneider and Ian Martin, it’s set in March 1953, shortly before Stalin’s sudden demise from a heart attack. The terror he inspires hits us right away when a radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, a piece beloved by the dictator, goes unaccountably unrecorded for his future delectation. Mistakes like this promise a one-way ticket to the gulag or worse. Under the frantic ministrations of a Radio Moscow bureaucrat (Paddy Considine) the concert is quickly performed again and, this time, recorded.

The Joseph Stalin of this movie, played with a broad Cockney accent by Adrian McLoughlin, loves American western movies even more than Mozart. (Both of these loves are based on fact.) He refers to his Central Committee members as his “posse,” but, as they all know full well, those old westerns were replete with lynchings and shootouts. When Stalin keels over, the Kremlin intrigue kicks into high gear, with each Committee member conniving for power.

It’s a marvelous crew of comic actors, all of whom, like McLoughlin, don’t bother to sport a Russian accent, which makes the impersonations all the funnier. They include Rupert Friend as Stalin’s dissolute son, Vasily; Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Stalin’s putative successor; Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev (just thinking of Buscemi as Khrushchev is laugh-inducing); Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the infamous cocktail); and, best of all, that grand Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria, the lethal head of the NKVD.

The central conceit of “The Death of Stalin” is that what is funny is not always just funny. In this sense, the film is closer in spirit to “Dr. Strangelove” than, say Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.” The latter was a jape; the former was a cautionary howl. It’s a howl that very much resonates in our own political era. This must be why Russia banned this film for, among reasons, being “extremist.” They got that right. Grade: A- (Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references.)

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