Combustible Celluloid
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With: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor
Written by: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows, Fabien Nury, based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury, Thierry Robin
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references
Running Time: 106
Date: 03/16/2018

The Death of Stalin (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fallen Stalin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Armando Iannucci (In the Loop), The Death of Stalin is in fact a comedy, and not just a dark comedy or a comedy-drama, but a full-on, all-out screwball-fest, with jokes and one-liners zigzagging so fast you'll need to google them to keep up. I know next to nothing about the recent history of the Soviet Union and I can't claim to know much about the accuracy of the details herein, nor can I make the claim that I was able to follow every single machination and twist. But I can agree with one character who says "I've had nightmares that made more sense," and assert that I was able to relax and go with the flow, and laugh — a lot.

It begins in 1953. A concert is being given, and a director in the audio booth receives a call from Stalin's people, telling him to call back in 17 minutes. He does, just as the show ends in rapturous applause. The reason for the call is that Stalin wishes to have a recording of the show. Of course, none has been made, so the director desperately re-assembles the orchestra and the audience, and stages it again, to record. A beautiful pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses to play and must be bribed. Later, she slips an anti-Stalin note inside the record sleeve. As Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) goes to play the record, he drops the note, tries to pick it up, and collapses.

His council of ministers includes interim leader Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), foreign affairs minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and security chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). They arrive on the scene, and their attempts to figure out what to do next become like a Three Stooges routine, starting with the decision to carry Stalin to another room without touching the bodily fluids that have leaked from it.

Stalin's grown daughter (Andrea Riseborough) and idiot son (Rupert Friend) are summoned, and it becomes a circus. Each individual attempts to wrest power for himself or herself, as well as a collectively attempting to make it look as if the committee is in charge. Stalin's massive funeral comes into play, with arguments over who to invite, where everyone is to stand, and how to spin the whole thing. It's a frenzy of comedy that has, refreshingly, led to some controversy (when was the last time a comedy was actually dangerous — at least in some quarters?). It also, it goes without saying, resembles some of what's going on in America right now.

Like I said, I can't say I followed everything, although I knew the name of the person that would eventually succeed Stalin, but Iannucci's jokes are constructed in such a clear way that it's insanely easy to laugh, regardless. Certainly the skilled comic performances help, from one of the all-time masters, Michael Palin, to Buscemi, whose brash New Yorker moves somehow fit in here perfectly. The Death of Stalin may sound daunting, but poking at a dead dictator hasn't been this much fun since the days of Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.

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