“The Death of Stalin”

“The Death of Stalin”
Directed by Armando Iannucci

TDOS_D22_4680-600x399When you think of hyphenate writer-directors with intensely personal styles a lot of names come to mind. But there are some whose style is SO specific that, apart from a miss or experiment or two, you know what you’re walking in to and can’t help but anticipate it with excitement! Among these auteurs are Wes Anderson, Martin McDonagh, and the Coen Brothers. So it was with this feeling of anticipatory giddiness that I entered the theater. Finally, after almost ten years of great television work (“Veep”, “The Thick of It” and the “Alan Partridge” cycle), I was going to experience the sophomore directorial effort of a man who made one of the all-time great political satires, “In the Loop”.

And what a subject to tackle! Based on Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel of the same name, Iannucci points his unique wit, rapid-fire intellectual insults and disdain for those present in the moments after Stalin’s death, when a small cabal of power hungry men cannibalize each other in their attempts to cede power. And, when the comparisons to our current government are this obvious, it’s not really worth getting in to. It’s what he does…and does well. And yet, bizarrely, this film doesn’t really live up what we’ve come to expect. The first thirty minutes or so are simply brilliant in that regard, but, like “Three Billboards”, once we get to the machinations of the plot, much of the delicious acerbic-ness of the dialogue dissipates, leaving us with a black comedy that loses just enough of the comedy that, given the horror of the character’s actions, makes it much tougher to go along for the ride. That said, this is a better directed film than “In the Loop”. That film was almost Altman-esque in the sheer number of characters involved. This film sticks to those who truly were in the loop, it never wavers from it’s main tasks and has a much more satisfying ending (even if it’s not exactly a pleasant journey).

Of course, none of it works without actors who can handle the Howard Hawks’ speed of the dialogue, and, lucky for us, he’s assembled a pretty stellar cast. It’s great to see Steve Buscemi (Kruschev) utilized to his real strengths. Not quite hitting the heights of Ianucci’s previous vessel, Peter Capaldi (the greatest witty insult delivery system of all time), Buscemi, nonetheless, gets it, works it and delivers it. Simon Russell Beale is, likewise, very good as Kruschev’s rival, Lavrenti Beria. The other members of the Politburo (Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Paul Whitehouse, Dermot Crowley and Paul Chahidi), like “Hudsucker Proxy’s” Board of Directors, act as the sycophantic connivers one imagines they were, to perfection. But there are two smaller performances that must be mentioned. The GREAT Paddy Considine is our guide to this world. The opening scenes are simply brilliant due to his comic chops. And then there’s Jason Isaacs. It’s impossible not to love his work as a spy, detective or put-upon loved one. But to see the sheer force of comedic energy he brings to his portrayal of General Zhukov is a revelation…and a much needed pick me up in the film’s third act.

First time feature composer, Christopher Williams has written a score that I honestly thought was made up of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky symphonic and ballet movements. Mature, appropriate, complex and brilliantly orchestrated, we’re going to hear a lot from him in the future. Wonderful music on its own, it REALLY aids the film. Finally, kudos to production designer, Cristina Casali; art director, David Hindle, and set decorator, Charlotte Dirickx. The meticulous attention to detail is almost enough of a reason to watch the film on its own.

So, this isn’t a great film. BUT, while a mixed bag, it is often hilarious, wholly entertaining and a very smart one hundred minutes – especially when compared to the drek that fills our theater complexes in the cinematic dog days of spring (“Black Panther” excepted). And given the shit going on all around us in the name of power, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

(The trailer gives away some of the great lines, but it’s really, really funny.
OH, also, it’s an r-rated trailer for language!)

Written on 3/24/2018

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