Film Review Friday: The Death of Stalin

Oh, how I wanted to love this film. When boiled down to its essential components, it’s really got everything I like: Political intrigue, satire, STEVE BUSCEMI. And yet, I found myself walking away from the theatre less impressed than I had thought I would be.

Set in Soviet Russia, The Death of Stalin (dir. Iannucci) follows the events of—get this—the death of Stalin. What will happen of mother Russia? Who will replace Uncle Joe? Unfortunately, this is where the problems for this film begin. Anybody who would be intrigued by a political satire about Stalinist Russia probably already knows what’s going to happen in the end, so for the film’s plot to offer the competition between Khrushchev (Buscemi) and Beria (Beale) as its main focus seems pointless.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we as an audience are just supposed to know the plot beforehand and simply sit back and enjoy some satire. I would have enjoyed doing this if I didn’t find myself forcing laughter more often than not. Granted, watching a Python (Palin) being rolled over by a lifeless Stalin (McLoughlin) got a laugh out of me, but more often than not, I found the film to be relying on the same two jokes over and over again. First, isn’t it funny that these Russians speak with American/English accents? Sure, at first it was pretty silly to have Khrushchev speak with Steve Buscemi’s unique cadence and for Stalin to speak with a thick London accent, but after a while you just accept them as character traits and it loses its humor. Second, isn’t it funny that these characters kill without remorse? For Beria do a walk-and-talk ala Sorkin before killing prisoners shouting “Long Live Stalin” was funny in a New Yorker comic kind of sense, but Jesus they did that same scene in like three different prison camps; the only difference between the scenes were what shades of bloody cement gray the prison walls were. I just feel like more could be done to pull the tongue out of the cheek of the director and have him focus more on different instances of the absurdist humor.

I don’t want people to think the movie is unwatchable. Actually, it was more artfully done than most movies I’ve seen in theatre recently.

Iannucci appreciates a good dynamic camera and he uses it in ways that added to the comedy.

One of the shots from the trailer shows Khrushchev and Beria running towards Stalin’s daughter, and the shaky mobile camera capturing these two old men sprinting did get a laugh out of me. The film also has a neat, almost knock-off Wes Anderson style; specific chapters in the film were marked by bright red intertitles. The general aesthetic seemed to relish in the rich red tones of Soviet Russian art and substantial brutalist architecture that is well juxtaposed by the lead character’s innate incompetence.

All in all, it certainly wasn’t a waste of $12.75, but I would like to have seen a bigger emphasis on satire and less on narrative. This isn’t a movie where the plot matters; you know the ending. So, we might as well enjoy ourselves…by killing political prisoners evidently. 

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