The Death of Stalin
Starring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend
The audience was virtually silent when this comedy debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, and initially no distributor was interested in releasing it. Eventually it was picked up by IFC films. It is often difficult to market such obtuse films as this historical slapstick comedy. “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this,” one character jokes. The joke here is most certainly on the audience. To be fair though, there was a small handful of people laughing when I saw the film, but the comedy put forth here hearkens back to Three Stooges-style slapstick, not as humorous to today’s audiences as it might have been in years past. Most of the characters and events in this comedy are from Soviet-era Russia, immediately following the chaotic death of Stalin. However, the actors seem to be mostly improvising their responses, ticks and outbursts, with no perceptible depiction of the actual historic figures.
While Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) lies on his deathbed, the vultures are circling to seize power after his passing. Stalin’s inept deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is next in line to assume power once the leader dies. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the other ministers plot and bicker over what to do next. Do they try and save their Soviet Union by halting the ongoing bloodbath of Stalin’s regime or maintain the status quo? The disorganization within the party over funeral plans throw the men gunning for control into pandemonium just as the nation begins to mourn.
The comedy put forth here hearkens back to Three Stooges-style slapstick, not as humorous to today’s audiences as it might have been in years past.
While I didn’t laugh once or find any scene in the film even remotely funny, I can’t deny that some did. Another critic commented after seeing the film that one needed to know the historical events of the story to enjoy this film. I disagree, if you took Nixon or Clinton era events and turned them into a slapstick historical comedy, I doubt I would find that amusing either. From Buscemi (Lean on Pete) to the versatile Riseborough (Battle of the Sexes), the cast of actors is squandered on embarrassingly shallow roles. The Death of Stalin ends up mirroring some run-of-the-mill Will Ferrell flick, only there was an intended purpose with this film that is never fulfilled.
While this movie might be intended for a distinct audience, it’s difficult to understand who exactly this audience might be. A colleague of mine suggested that ultra-liberal, New Yorker readers might be the intended audience for a movie like this. I’m just not sure. I have seen more people walk away from this movie than embrace it. Despite acclaim for the film from some of the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and elsewhere, this film will seem dull, confusing and not very funny to most audiences.
Three Stooges-style slapstick meets political satire.