THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018, R, 107 minutes, QUAD PRODUCTIONS/IFC FILMS)
Recently, I lambasted a film (RED SPARROW, for those keeping track—all twelve of you…) for replacing Russian accents with British ones, and relegating the few actual Russian actors that were in the film to secondary roles.
I did so because it was a film trying rather hard to be taken seriously. It was a spy thriller, a genre that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for comedy. So when THE DEATH OF STALIN starts, and there are no Russian accents—and keep in mind that this film takes place entirely in Russia—it comes across as a Mel Brooks-type of comedic move. I mean, no one even tries for an accent other than from their native country. Is this a poke at current filmmaking’s efforts to cast Brits in the roles of any and every foreign character? Is it a jab at social constructs, and Hollywood’s ever-present underrepresentation of foreign actors and actresses?
Nope. It is all part of the joke. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to see Steve Buscemi (RESERVOIR DOGS, FARGO) speaking with any voice other than his own, and the joke works best for him. And the last time Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”, HELLBOY) sounded good with an altered voice was when he was trying to belt out “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Besides Michael Palin (everything Monty Python), these are your main reasons for watching this film. It isn’t because writer/director Armando Iannucci crafted a hilarious script about the demise of the Russian dictator and the subsequent struggle for power immediately following his death. Because, unfortunately, he did not.
There are some funny moments to the film, but its humor is too inconsistent to truly classify this as a comedy. From the start, the biggest joke is that everyone is afraid of being killed; Stalin (played with a gleeful sort of vileness by Adrian McLoughlin) kept lists of people that he didn’t like—those that had either offended him or wronged him—and those people were summarily arrested and/or executed. We see this fear alive and well in a radio station, and station manager Andreyev’s (played by Paddy Considine, who does wonders with his role) reaction to discovering that Stalin wants a recording of that night’s performance—which wasn’t recorded. His efforts to re-seat the audience and convince the orchestra to perform again sets up a feeling of slapstick bordering on screwball comedy. It is a feeling that, to the detriment of the film, gets left behind.
Within the script are too many lost opportunities. Slapstick would have worked wonderfully for the film; indeed, some of the scenes are played that way, but Ianucci loses focus of his style too often. You want the film to be better; there is potential here, and with a cast as game as this one is, you can’t help but wonder why he would choose to switch gears so suddenly and on so many occasions. There is a much funnier film here, one which deserves a more consistent method of storytelling, one which relies less on heavy-handed satire and more on the physical comedy which looked so appropriate to the subject matter. You can’t just be funny part of the time, and go serious for brief moments of levity. One death is funny, yet another is not. It almost feels as though there is a statement being made here, but it’s a long statement that needs a whole lot of explaining. And that isn’t comedy, kids.
Another issue is the main “joke” of the film—that Stalin’s paranoia had everyone in the country wondering if they were next on the list. At first it is used to illicit laughs, and it works. But the dark turn of the joke, not to mention it being used far too many times for it to have no other choice than be developed as a dramatic plot device, makes the joke stale. I understand that this was a time of fear for that country, but dammit, the film is billed as a freaking comedy.
It tries its best to make you laugh, and there are some genuinely funny lines. Tambor is especially effective, yet even he seems to lose the comedic flair. But there are no specific scenes that stand out to me as spectacularly hilarious, and that is where the script, or at least Ianucci’s directorial efforts, leave me wanting.
I can’t help but wonder how this would have turned out had it been a Mel Brooks film. That is what happens when you have a fully capable cast, yet nothing memorable for them to do; you wonder how better the story could have been told, had there been another storyteller in charge.
-- T.S. Kummelman