I’ve been missing screenings of Armando Ianucci‘s The Death of Stalin (IFC Films, 3.9) for the last six months, but I finally saw it last night. I’ve no argument with the critics who are doing handstands and cartwheels except for the fact that it’s more LQTM funny than the laugh-out-loud kind. There’s nothing wrong with LQTM humor, which I’ve also described as no-laugh funny — you just have to get past the idea of expecting to go “hah-hah, ho-ho, hee-hee” because that never happens.
Iannucci’s script is about top-tier, real-life Communist scumbags (Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Zhukov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Svetlana Stalina) scrambling for position and power in the wake of Joseph Stalin‘s death in March 1953. It’s based on Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin‘s graphic novel “The Death Of Stalin.”
Last August I wrote “who cares what a demimonde of paranoid Russian assholes were up to 64 years ago, stabbing each other in the back and shooting innocent suspects and whatnot?” Now that I’ve seen this 107-minute film, the answer is “you can’t care…you can’t care about anyone.” But you don’t hate anyone either because of the comic attitude or…you know, that sprinkled pixie-dust feeling that all would-be comedies have.
The idea is to generate humor in the midst of political terror and random bullets in the head, and I have to say that the two elements don’t mix all that well. At best, The Death of Stalin is occasionally heh-heh funny. But I’m being sincere in insisting how smart and fleet this thing is. All the way through I was telling myself “I like this” and “this is fast and crafty as shit” so not laughing didn’t bother me very much. Well, I guess I would have had a bit more fun if it was “hah-hah” funny but I understand the concept of comedies that are only supposed to make you smirk and chortle, if that.
I have to say two other things that may not sound like recommendations, but they’re not huge problems. One, The Death of Stalin doesn’t really find its comic footing in the beginning. I was saying to myself “Jesus, this isn’t even LQTM” but that’s only for the first…oh, eight or ten minutes. And two, it doesn’t really have what you might call a climax or a third-act crescendo. The Death of Stalin lasts 107 minutes, but when it came to an abrupt end I said to myself “wait…they’re ending it with the brutal execution of Beria and the ascension of Khrushchev and….that’s it?”
My basic reactions were (a) amusement and (b) admiration for the darkly farcical tone and rat-a-tat pacing (the creative genius behind In The Loop and Veep knows all about deadpan political farce)…it’s really good stuff. I particularly enjoyed Steve Buscemi‘s portrayal of Nikita Kruschchev (i.e., Kruschchev if he’d been born in one of the scrappier parts of Long Island and sounded a lot like “Mr. Pink” from Reservoir Dogs) and Jason Isaacs‘ relishy performance as the bruising Marshall Zhukov. I also loved Andrea Riseborourgh‘s channelling of Stalin’s daughter.
It’s generally good. Honest. If you persuade friends to see it with you, they probably won’t give you dirty looks after it ends. I never felt burned — it’s just that I couldn’t quite make myself (or allow myself to) laugh. And that’s fine.