THE DEATH OF STALIN Review
Director: Armando Iannucci
If the cinematic output of 2016 taught me anything whatsoever, it was that entire genres could experience a renaissance of sorts. Back then, it was the horror film, a genre that had been on a steady up-and-up over the course of the 2010s, but really hit its stride in 2016 with the help of THE WITCH, THE CONJURING 2, OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL, UNDER THE SHADOW, DEMON, BASKIN, and many, many more. It was a gift from the heavens. A sign that even the stalest bread could be turned back into that crispy loaf it once was. With that realization, I’ve been waiting for a comedy revival with bated breath.
You see, it’s a dire state of affairs for the modern comedy. No other genre in cinema is quite as prone to reductive recycling. It’s a genre that dates itself with a shelf life of roughly half a decade, and has all but forgotten the quirks that once made classic comedies so great. AIRPLANE! and THE APARTMENT are no more. Razor-sharp scripted content has been replaced for hard-hitting ad-libs: a style of comedy that often sprints to the lowest common denominator of every joke, something best displayed in any run-of-the-mill Will Ferrell comedy.
Pictured: Jeffrey Tambor explains why Will Ferrell comedies are rarely good
But that isn’t to say there aren’t great comedies out there: they are simply few and far between. The defining characteristic between good and great comedic works will always be their durability—how many of these gags will my children’s children understand once ZOOLANDER 2’s Justin Bieber cameo means nothing to a viewer? Cue Armando Iannucci, a writer with the Tommy gun rhetoric of Howard Hawks and the sardonic political commentary of Stanley Kubrick. As creator of VEEP, Iannucci is anything but a relic of another time, but he’s arguably the only working filmmaker who understands how essential verbal and physical timing are to films a la THE DEATH OF STALIN, his latest political farce.
Following members of the Soviet elite in their hurried consolidation of power after Stalin shockingly kicks the bucket, Iannucci’s film is a grim, gut-burstingly hilarious frenzy. Steve Buscemi hits a late-career stride in his performance as Nikita Khrushchev, Jason Isaacs brings some serious heat, Jeffrey Tambor wonderfully balances the ensemble’s fierce energy with a muted, spineless delivery, and the list goes on and on and on. What’s doubly impressive is that THE DEATH OF STALIN bills itself as a rather restrained chamber piece, when in actuality it’s an elaborate comedic epic, the type of period comedy we frankly don’t see much of anymore.
Tambor shows you where you can stick your negative reviews
It’s a film I can really only compare to DR. STRANGELOVE (any comparisons to TEAM AMERICA, ELECTION, BANANAS, GOOD BYE LENIN!, or THE CAMPAIGN, would be superficial at best), one that relishes the dry delivery of its British humor but never forgets the morbid underlying drama to its very real events. Iannucci’s stroke of genius comes within the final 20 minutes, an extensive set piece that—despite showcasing some darkly comedic undertones—opts out of the brazen, gonzo comedy stylings of the preceding hour. The result is a sequence that hits with a deep emotional impact, highlighting just how cruel these men of power really were.
Iannucci not only understands the smallest intricacies of living under communist rule (a brief anecdote about water shortages in tenement buildings will get a huge chuckle out of anyone who has lived in an Eastern Bloc country), he also understands the psychologies of these conditions shockingly well; from the mindset of its people to the egocentrism of its leaders. If the DEATH OF STALIN proves anything, it’s that comedy still has quite the life force within it. PADDINGTON 2 proved that the genre is alive and kicking and 2016’s THE NICE GUYS stood out as a wonderful old school throwback as well. The point is that this once deftly inventive genre has become oddly complacent in the last decade, so we ought to support the few films that come around and really push the envelope (we certainly failed Shane Black back in 2016). It has become far too easy to settle for funny as a comedic filmmaker, when hysterical should be anyone’s final destination. It’s something Iannucci knows all too well. For the love of comedy, here’s to the death of all Stalins!