Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was a pure tyrant, but what if his committee of cronies were just as bad?
Armando Iannucci (In The Loop) takes the history that we all know, spins it wildly into a drunken state, and re-imagines the days following the death of Moscow's fascist leader. Before the man can take his final breath, committee members Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) among others are busy scheming for their place in the pecking order. Most importantly, which of them will become the new commander in chief?
Iannucci basically transports the unkempt and hilarious mindset of HBO's Veep into 1953 Russia here, producing laughs from a traumatic period in World History. Just go with the flow and laugh. Did it go this way? No, but who can really tell how much conniving did happen and how many of his supporters turned into power-hungry mad men? The title may seem serious, but the content is hilarious.
Fans of the Comedy Central's Drunk History will adore this movie. It's doing the exact same thing, only manipulating the real events with wicked humor and top-tier acting. Buscemi is a master at slipping into the skin of a weaselly antagonist, but he gives Nikita a small measure of contempt and redemption by his need to free the imprisoned innocents that Stalin shoved into a cell.
If you don't know how terrible the guy was, The Death of Stalin does provide you with an unconventional version of how it all went down. If you weren't being killed in the streets or arrested, you were most likely on a list to be either killed or imprisoned soon. When he died, this group of wildings didn't try to stop it, but rather to rearrange the seats for their own benefit.
Beale's Beria is the most devilish mastermind, angling against the entire council and doing despicable things in the shadows of his boss' tyranny. The actors get to deliver lines that only a handful of actors could deliver with the proper intent. Tambor fares well as the weak-in-the-knees secretary who takes over immediate action, but watch out for Rupert Friend (Quinn on Homeland) as Stalin's drunken son Vasily and Jason Isaacs as the leader of the Red Army.
Every actor does their best to perfect the accent, but it's not that important, because too much fun is being had to worry about voice accuracy. They are here to chew scenery while making you think about what actually happened. If you think Donald Trump's presidency is crazy, check this "in a world" imagined landscape.
Is this game-changing gold? No. Did I laugh a lot and leave impressed? Yes.
I didn't leave this film thinking it was the greatest thing since brewed coffee, but I do think the acting and screenplay — which is stuffed full of fancy-tongued hilarity and putdowns — is some of the best I've seen in a while. If there is a front-runner for best ensemble cast, The Death of Stalin is at the front of the line.
Co-writer/director Iannucci handpicked these actors one at a time, and you can tell. Every actor fits the role like a tailored suit set to one ideal set of mannerisms. That's high-class skill.
I don't think I'll be thinking about this one a week from now, but when December rolls around and I start rounding up the best of the best, something tells me I'll be thinking about Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin. It's something different.