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A World Leader’s Passing is Hardly a Tragic Circumstance in The Death of Stalin

This hilarious political satire uses its titular event as the launch pad for a revisionist romp with subtle contemporary resonance.
By Todd Jorgenson |

Normally it’s rude to laugh at someone rather than with them, but in the case of a gravely ill former Soviet dictator and his bumbling cohorts, we can make an exception.

So don’t feel guilty about chuckling away at The Death of Stalin, a hilarious political satire from Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci (In the Loop) that uses its titular event as the launch pad for a revisionist romp with subtle contemporary resonance.

The film opens in 1953, when an aging Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suddenly keels over from a massive stroke. Without any plan in place for succession, members of his Central Committee gather at the Kremlin, afraid to reveal their joy over their leader’s passing.

Instead, a power struggle ensues, filled with bickering and dysfunction over everything from funeral planning to parliamentary procedure. While the committee’s flaky secretary (Jeffrey Tambor) reluctantly assumes a temporary leadership role, the two behind-the-scenes adversaries seeking control of the Communist party become Stalin’s top advisor, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and his security chief, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale).

Stalin’s death might seem like an odd and somewhat ambitious target to mock and ridicule, although the film is really more about the chaotic aftermath and how the lingering posthumous effects of the dictator’s policies threaten the future.

The screenplay, which is based on a graphic novel, revels in absurdities. The film’s rapid-fire barrage of sight gags and one-liners, along with the deadpan delivery from its terrific ensemble cast, yields plenty of big laughs.

Even as it speculates on some historical specifics, those familiar with period details will benefit from the script’s sharp observations, such as Stalin’s distrust of doctors leading to their unavailability when they’re needed most.

Amid the Moscow mayhem, Iannucci and his actors, speaking in British and American accents, smartly develop the characters. Buscemi has many of the best moments, sporting a belly and a bald spot while conveying in profane terms Khrushchev’s constant exasperation.

Who knows how The Death of Stalin might play in contemporary Russia. But for the rest of us, the antics of an oppressive socialist regime have never been so funny. Especially in these times, if we can’t laugh at egomaniac politicians, then who can we laugh at?

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