Ambition trumps ability in bafflingly acclaimed disappointment
Mocking the sniveling, cowardly idiots clamoring for power after an awful dictator vacates his post, “The Death of Stalin” would seem to come along at just the right time. Plus, no one is more suited to the task than director/co-writer Armando Iannucci, whose “In the Loop” is one of the funniest and most underrated comedies of the century and whose “Veep” has almost as much political absurdity as real life.
Except, you know, the uneven “The Death of Stalin” isn’t very funny. It gets off to a good start—“Don’t worry, no one’s going to get killed; this is a musical emergency,” declares Andreyev (Paddy Considine) when he learns Soviet villain Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) needs a recording of a performance that has just finished, meaning the musicians need to do it all over again. The film’s opening scene has absurdist vigor as terrified dopes scramble to appease their cruel leader. While not on the level of “Four Lions,” the brilliant British comedy about suicide bombers – if that sounds impossible, catch up with it and change your mind – it flirts with the sort of inspired humor drawn from Iannucci’s best, silliest stuff.
Yet a lot of this tiresome, 1953-set movie struggles to differentiate among its cast of ambitious jackasses (including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin) and lacks a sense of surprise. Where “In the Loop” moved and analyzed faster than your brain could even process, “The Death of Stalin” labors inside the sort of buffoonery that “Burn After Reading” achieved with much more cohesive performances and comic richness. Oh, Malenkov (Tambor) is wearing a girdle because he has a bad back? How clever.
Granted, we all could use any excuse for humorous release from the daily onslaught of political atrocity, and Iannucci deserves credit for refusing to flinch when prodding at power. But “The Interview” didn’t get a pass and neither does this, which botches the tone with some reasonably intense violence (based on what really happened, of course) and doesn’t actually try that hard to identify what’s specifically funny about this situation beyond the standard send-up of conniving nitwits. I didn’t feel invested in the power grab or the flimsy alliances or curious about who’d rise to the top.
If you’re just laughing because of the satirical identification of supposedly strong leaders as sneaky jerks or the installation of Americans into Russia instead of the other way around, comrade, please.