Friday, March 30, 2018

In Theaters: THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018)

(France/UK/Belgium - 2018)

Directed by Armando Iannucci. Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine, Adrian McLoughlin, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Richard Brake, Diana Quick, Karl Johnson, Tom Brooke, Gerald Lepkowski. (R, 107 mins)

Best known in America for creating the HBO series VEEP, Armando Iannucci has been one of the most respected names in British comedy for over 20 years. He co-created Steve Coogan's signature "Alan Partridge" character, seen in several British TV series and the 2013 film ALAN PARTRIDGE, and was the brains behind the scathing BBC political satire THE THICK OF IT. That was spun off into the hilarious 2009 film IN THE LOOP, both of which centered on the stunningly profane central performance of Peter Capaldi and more or less set the style and tone for VEEP. Iannucci stepped down as VEEP's showrunner after its fourth season, and he's back with his second feature film, THE DEATH OF STALIN, based on a 2017 French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The trademark Iannucci tone and endless, gloriously foul dialogue are here in all their glory, but THE DEATH OF STALIN is much darker than what we've seen from Iannucci in the past, largely because it depicts a series of actual events but runs them through its maker's uniquely skewed perspective and pitch-black comedy filter. This isn't just comedy of discomfort--it's comedy of unease. In less capable hands, it could've been an uneven and potentially tone-deaf disaster--after DR. STRANGELOVE, you can probably count on one hand the number of dark political comedies that are simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Perhaps it takes a cynical master of bullshit-calling like Iannucci to properly convey the unattainable heights of narcissistic sociopathy mixed the ego-driven, thorough incompetence displayed by the powers that be, with the resulting film being a vicious beatdown of dictatorial regimes embodying the adage of absolute power corrupting absolutely (the film was banned in Russia earlier this year after the Culture Ministry deemed it offensive), and though the film is set in the Soviet Union over 60 years ago, analogies can be drawn much closer to home in the here and now.

That's not to say it's all gloom and doom. THE DEATH OF STALIN has the expected uproarious quips and sarcastic one-liners that have become synonymous with Iannucci. In the Soviet Union in 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is at the height of his dictatorial reign. He regularly draws up death lists, has people hauled off to gulags, routinely orders executions for minor infractions, and even those in his inner circle are constantly walking on eggshells so as not to have any comment be misconstrued in a way that will make this day their last as they live and die at the whims of a mercurial madman. When he dies suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage, the underlings and sycophants in his immediate orbit begin a war-like campaign of endless backstabbing, double-crossing, and shit-talking power plays as they jockey to assume power. Nothing is off limits and it doesn't matter how often they change policies or contradict themselves and everything for which the Union stands. In the hours and days following Stalin's death, his deputy secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the next in line of succession and assumes temporary control, but other players are already plotting their next moves, namely the ruthless head of the NVPD secret police and security chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and wily, pragmatic Central Committee politico Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Malenkov immediately proves ineffective and indecisive, prone to easy manipulation by Beria and Khrushchev, with other Committee members Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi), and Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) caught in the middle waiting to see how things pan out. Others figuring into the chaotic proceedings include Stalin's daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), son Vasily (Rupert Friend), and highly decorated war hero Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who helps Khrushchev lead the final coup to muscle out Malenkov and silence Beria for good.

The power struggle unfolds like a buffoonish chess game, with one of the unexpected highlights being the intentional decision to have the actors not attempt Russian accents and instead just talk like they talk. Hence, Buscemi is a wiseass Khrushchev who sounds like he's from one of the Five Boroughs, Tambor is an insecure Malenkov who talks like George Bluth, and Isaacs (channeling Capaldi's THICK OF IT persona) plays Zhukov like a Cockney thug in a Guy Ritchie movie. Once the political gamesmanship is underway, the insults and the ballbusting fly fast and furious, and Iannucci doesn't hesitate to play it blue, like Khrushchev dismissively responding to whiny Vasily pleading "I want to speak at my father's funeral" with a curt "And I wanna fuck Grace Kelly." There's also some more subtle jokes, particularly with some standout comedic timing by the great Palin, who's a joy as Molotov, getting long-winded and speechy during a vote that must be unanimous, and everyone around the table keeps raising and lowering their hands because they aren't sure what to do and need to keep up appearances.  It's no spoiler to anyone who knows their history that Khrushchev ultimately emerged victorious in the plot to permanently succeed Stalin. That is, until he himself was ousted nine years later, having not learned what Iannucci shows in the closing scene at a concert being given by renowned and politically outspoken Russian pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), where new Soviet leader Khrushchev is oblivious to ambitious Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) sitting diagonally behind him, looking over his shoulder, his wheels turning and another coup already being set in motion.

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