The mind behind hit BBC series The Thick of It, and the equally successful spin-off feature, In the Loop, comes through once again with a chaotically humorous tumble into a bizarre period in history.
The year is 1953 and Joseph Stalin has just died; this is the scene in which Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is set. Numerous politicians gather and attempt to come to a decision as to who will take command over the Soviet Union in the wake of his sudden death. What ensues is a hectic whirl that hilariously depicts a bizarre power struggle of historical importance and interest. Each of the men, or rather, bumbling buffoons by the way of portrayal, seem to scheme and undermine one another for their own gratifications. It was a period in history of utter befuddlement, and made just that more ridiculous in that such lunacy was of those in charge; a perfect tale for Iannucci to tell.
A superb ensemble cast handle Iannucci’s script with sheer ease; they are all having a great deal of fun, and who wouldn’t be with such fantastic writing. The jokes are relentless it seems - a laugh a minute becomes expectant, at least, before the first act draws to a close. Despite the laughs not always necessarily being hearty, their headlong persistence in raising chuckled choruses from the audience throughout is proof that this is a comedy of success. There is a control over the material possessed by all involved, and the cast manage such an enviable chemistry. There is an overt slickness to the delivery at all times, and such a self-aware sense of prestige in the script is given weight with such terrific performances. Arguably, the most impressively comedic performance here is that of Jeffrey Tambor, in the role of Georgy Malenkov. The phrase "dead behind the eyes" has never been so accurate, or so funny - Tambor is an absolute stitch whenever he is on screen, which is a great achievement when acting alongside such talent as Jason Isaacs and Steve Buscemi, who are both great in their roles, respectfully. Paddy Considine however feels slightly wasted. His role is crucial to the films exposition, but non-existent as events swing into motion; nevertheless, he commands the screen in his brief appearance.
The issue is that it becomes the case that every line possesses the intention to produce a laugh, and not all of them do, it just isn't possible. Although the writer/director has proved that he can expertly combine satire with a comedy to be consumed by the masses, certain jokes feel incredibly smug. It becomes problematic in that audiences can perceive that the writer feels he is smarter than they are, and the ambition of raising a laugh a minute raises many misfires resulting in certain lines that feel painfully unfunny. Iannucci fortunately mixes his highbrow attempts with very lowbrow humour; there is a clear conflict, but it is this conflict of humour that provides the film with a spark, and this spark ignites into fiery carnage as the narrative escalates into jarring violence and camaraderie.
As things begin to spiral further and further out of control, humour arises from the groups ignorance, arrogance and total disregard for the implications that their actions have on an entire society. This comedic observation of men concerned with personal gain despite their mass repercussions gives the film some relevant insight into even wider present social contexts, but this is mostly achieved before the films final act, of which feels wearisome. It certainly drags, and it feels like the story has been stretched out simply to facilitate certain jokes that the director felt had to be included.
There are some terrific lines in The Death of Stalin, and some cringe-inducing ones thrown in as a clear result of trying a little too hard. Although it overstays its welcome, it is a lot of fun and may even achieve cult-classic status in the far future for its ballsy approach to such subject matter, and a fearless approach to dark-humour.