Those familiar with Armando Iannucci's previous work, including the British-American political satire In the Loop (a spin-off of his television show, "The Thick of It"), and the HBO comedy "Veep," will have a good idea of what they're in for with The Death of Stalin, which peeks inside the halls of power in Communist Russia and reduces all of the participants to selfish, nearly incompetent assholes. Using the torture, murder, and control of Russian citizens as a backdrop, Iannucci stages a farce using some of the best comic and dramatic performers around (although one of them has since made headlines for the wrong reasons and puts a bit of a damper on the proceedings). It's an ambitious film, one that represents a step up in scope and craft from In the Loop, but also one that may be slightly less accessible to American audiences not intimately familiar with Russian political history.
The star of the film is arguably Buscemi, whose perpetually irritated expression make him a great straight man against Beria's more aggressive tactics. He's funny just to look at, with his slightly evident bald cap, high-waisted pants, and sour attitude, as he reels with exasperation from whatever new piece of unfortunate information he's just been fed or discovered. Beale, probably best known to American audiences from the TV show "Penny Dreadful," is a master with some of Iannuci and co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin's more scathing one-liners. Both have great fun turning their characters into giant children, even as their actions put the lives of innocent people at stake. Around the fringes, Michael Palin is also hilarious as the particularly spineless Molotov, and Jason Isaacs turns up late in the film as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov and scores some big laughs. There is also an extended bit near the beginning featuring Paddy Considine as a panicked theater manager that is especially funny.
It's frustrating, on the other hand, that so much of the film's story revolves around Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, a clueless puppet who simultaneously loves his newfound fame and power and also is desperate to try and please everyone. Although Iannucci can't be held responsible for Tambor's public scandals (especially given that some of them occurred after the film was made), but it is unavoidably tough to watch him taking part in wacky bits with his other castmates. The best scenes with Tambor are the ones around the midway point, inside the chambers where motions are being put forth and passed, in which the rhythm of the whole group working together clicks into place and it's easier to view his participation as part of a well-oiled comic machine.
Although In the Loop built to a Middle Eastern conflict that was clearly rooted in reality, Iannucci is more pointed about the horrors going on in the background here, pushing The Death of Stalin toward a darker tone. As Khrushchev moves toward an endgame with Beria, Iannucci lets the cruelty and soullessness of the people on screen sink in a little further, resisting the urge to puncture some of the more brutal moments with jokes. The result is a tricky balancing act that viewers will likely be split on. Regardless, the risk-taking nature of the movie is one of its more pleasing aspects, finding Iannucci expanding the boundaries of his satirical eye even as he largely stays within his stylistic wheelhouse.
The Video and Audio
The slightly superior extra is a reel of deleted scenes (11:03), which is less a collection of scenes as it is a collection of excised moments, including a lot of one-liners that didn't make the finished film. Worth a look.
No theatrical trailer for The Death of Stalin has been included.