Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci most often applies his acidic comedic lens to modern political absurdity, as he did in his film “In the Loop” and on the HBO comedy “Veep.” But politics has never not been chaotic and absurd, and Iannucci tackles history in his latest, “The Death of Stalin.” Adapted from the graphic novels “The Death of Stalin” and “Volume 2 — The Funeral” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, producers Yann Zenou and Laurent Zeitoun sought out Iannucci bring his voice and worldview to the stranger-than-fiction events that unfolded after the death of General Secretary Comrade Joseph Stalin in 1953.
Iannucci wrote the blackly comic script with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows and assembled a group of actors that range in expertise from TV comedy to Shakespearean theater to make up the group of bumbling lackeys that struggled for power after Stalin’s stroke and subsequent death in 1953. Steve Buscemi takes on the role of Nikita Khrushchev, lending him a Brooklyn-borne sarcasm (all the actors use their own accents), while Jeffrey Tambor turns ultimate successor Georgy Malenkov into a soft, vain and indecisive submissive.
But it’s the Brits who truly steal the show, including stage actor Simon Russell Beale as the menacingly evil secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria. With his fussy pince-nez and ever-present sheaf of papers, Beale makes Beria seem like the most evil accountant in the world, a torturer and rapist who is simply making a list and checking it twice. Rupert Friend is also a hoot as Stalin’s drunken, ne’er-do-well son Vasily, who is more concerned that his father might find out about a plane crash that wiped out the national hockey team (that is actually true, folks).
What distinguishes “The Death of Stalin” from Iannucci’s other work is the disquieting, ever-present reminder that this is history. Iannucci usually works in the world of fiction that hews sometimes distressingly close to reality, but with “The Death of Stalin,” it’s real people and real events, which sometimes cuts a bit too close to the bone. It’s a cartoonish depiction that can be hard to laugh at, or with, and while Iannucci carefully threads the tonal needle between horror and comedy, sometimes he misses the mark. Within the safe world of this filmed comedy, we can watch Beria make crude rape jokes, but he was still a very real treacherous sexual predator and murderer, with the blood of many victims on his hands.
It’s the reality of it all that rubs the wrong way. Iannucci refers to it as a tragicomedy, folding the horror of this world right up next to absurd comedy. In the press notes, he cites the joke books that circulated during this era of executions, arrests, torture and gulags — laughter can be an emotional release in a time of terror and dread. But the film doesn’t fully articulate that idea — that this is a way to laugh instead of cry.
There is a certain power in laughing at the absurdity of evil totalitarianism, which is propped up by pomp and propaganda — Iannucci illustrates that well with the grandeur and pomposity of Stalin’s funeral. Laughter resists that, and though “The Death of Stalin” might be too flippant with regard to the violence of this era, it reminds us that hierarchical structures of power and the images that perpetuate that power are constructed by silly, petty, flawed, fallible human beings. Here’s hoping Iannucci gets a crack at the current political situation sooner rather that later, even though it already seems scripted by his razor-sharp pen.
The Death of Stalin
Rated: R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references. Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale. Director: Armando Iannucci. Running time: 106 minutes. Theater: Flicks.