By now, those of us who go to see a film by Armando Iannucci are very aware of what makes him special. Like all great satirists, he sniffs out the worst parts of the human character, shoves it in our faces and, in spite of this, gets us to laugh about it. “The Death of Stalin” may not be as laugh-out-loud funny as the best parts of “In The Loop” and “Veep”, but laugh-out-loud you will, many times.
But it is also disturbing in a newer and different way, and that’s not so easy to laugh at.
Part of Iannucci’s technique is having a scene start off straight, almost normal, but get extended past normalcy. It is Moscow, 1953. We see two radio engineers idly chatting in a booth at a concert. The concert concludes, the audience applauds the pianist, the conductor and the orchestra, and prepares to leave. Suddenly, the engineers get a call from Stalin – unseen – who is “requesting” a recording of the concert, even though no recording had been made. Stalin then tells them to call him back in seventeen minutes. Part of the comedy is how the lead engineer frantically mobilizes all participants – including the orchestra, the pianist, the conductor and the audience – to repeat everything they had just done at the concert, but this time it will be recorded.
We can expect good comedy from this, and we get it. What Iannucci adds, however, is how the engineers argue with each other about how to determine when the seventeen minutes are up. For them, the idea of missing that exact moment is as terrifying as not having the concert recording.
The body of the film, however, is the events set in motion by Stalin’s sudden death, namely the plotting and rivalry among the members of the Central Committee. The three main evildoers are Krushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale and Malenkov, played by Jeffrey Tambor. The action is similar to what we see on “Veep”: everyone shouts, interrupts and sneaks into corners to plot; schemes are hatched, abandoned and botched; foul language is ubiquitous and faces constantly express dismay, glee or terror, sometimes simultaneously. But always hilariously.
The main – and crucial – difference is that the motivations on “Veep” are government jobs or campaign contributions, but the prize here is not getting a bullet in your brain. And you have to be alert every moment. Thinking she is already dead, Molotov, played by Michael Palin, explains to Krushchev why his wife deserved to be shot as a traitor. But then, suddenly, Beria delivers her, rescued, to his open arms, and he must perform the tearful gratitude that is expected of him.
My favorite scene is also the most Pythonesque. Seated at a large table, the members of the Central Committee have an official meeting. They make various, often ridiculous proposals, usually to punish a rival, and Malenkov, as interim Premier after Stalin’s death, goes to unfathomable and exhausting length so that each one is ruled on “u-nanimously”.
Steve Buscemi pretty much dominates the film, getting a lot of the best lines, and he doesn’t hold back. He uses the same New Jersey accent he used as “Nucky”, the crime boss in “Boardwalk Empire” – but then nobody in the cast tries to sound Russian, which is perfect.
Part of the fun is seeing how trying to prevent a problem only makes it worse. That happens when Krushchev tells Stalin’s grieving daughter, Svetlana, that “they’ll have to get past me” if anyone tries to harm her. “Harm?” she says in a panic. “What kind of harm?” Buscemi’s exasperation at trying to calm her is classic. “See what you get when you try to be nice?”
I also loved when, at the ending, he curses the burning corpse of his rival. He screams that history will bury his memory, recalling when the real Krushchev said those same words about the United States. And another delight is Chris Willis’ film score, a Shostakovich pastiche, especially under the end credits.
But delight isn’t enough to satisfy Iannucci. To wit: the brilliant moment filmed from the pov of a military van pulling away. In the back are some people being taken away to be shot. But in the distance are two soldiers, one of whom is directing where the van should go, while the other – in a smooth, unhurried motion – shoots him through the head.
I laughed. But was the joke that this was absurd – as beyond belief – or that it was, to our surprise, all too credible? With either one, I’m uncomfortable about it.
So that’s the upshot. The characters act like humans, which makes us laugh, but they also happen to be monsters. The laughs may catch in your throat.
But who else today can make us laugh about the worst of human nature? To do this, he channels the visual genius of Buster Keaton and the verbal genius of Preston Sturges. Still, it would be nice if one of his films made us feel good about humanity. I remember feeling that way after seeing “Sullivan’s Travels”. It was clear that Preston Sturges was still hopeful about people, and that even our worst impulses can be controlled enough to let us all enjoy what life has to offer.
Don’t hold your breath. While I intend to see everything Iannucci puts his name to, as well as to see “The Death of Stalin” again – and to enjoy the laughter it draws from me – I also expect to be depressed afterwards. Sometimes “funny” just isn’t any “fun”.