In ‘The Death of Stalin,’ Hilarity and Horror Make Gleefully Disquieting Bedfellows

Perhaps the most telling reason as to why Armando Iannucci’s Veep works as a television series is that we never know which political party Selina Meyer, her team and closest allies represent. Speculation can fuel debate and the odd think piece, but there’s too much evidence in either direction to give a definitive answer. And thank goodness for that, otherwise the show might find itself too burdened by ideology for the humor to sting even greater, and for all individuals. Instead, one simple message rings clear for all to therapeutically enjoy; the political arena is a scrambled clusterfuck, and the figures leading the way are power-hungry egomaniacs, buffoonish iconoclasts or both – it’s quite often both. Usually, the sanest individuals in the room are those behind the scenes, and even they are a hearty concoction of incompetence and self-aggrandizement.

The Death of Stalin may instead fixate the writer-director’s typically satirical gaze on a particular ideological target – the USSR, of course – but considering the near unanimous hatred of the former dictatorship across most nationalities and political affiliations, ideology was the least of his concerns. Adapting the film from the graphic novel of the same name, perhaps his only concern was balancing what he has done with Veep, The Thick of It and In the Loop – highlighting the absurdities of politics and its inner circles by, in part, comically exaggerating each distasteful figure’s worst personality traits and pitting them in situations against one another – with a narrative tone that doesn’t irresponsibly undermine the terror the Soviet Union inflicted upon its citizens, and even those within the system deemed a potential threat to leadership. The results are expected – in other words, a successful farce – given Iannucci’s track record, but the execution retains a sense of intrigue no other product of his has offered.

Media like Veep and In the Loop provide cathartic entertainment with their extension from a commonly-held sentiment that politics and politicians are inept, bumbling ideologues wielding a sometimes unwarranted, and often times frightening level of power. Though that’s as nuanced as the underlying concept goes, it’s up to both the actors and audience to project their own ideas of complexity upon each character to keep proceedings from growing stale. In fact, when viewing these shows and films, that’s possibly the greatest farce of them all; tricking ourselves into seeing even a minute level of development that lifts the protagonists from their caricature-esque portrayals before we eventually sink into and accept the show/film’s comic nihilism, internalizing that no one, especially not these folks, ever changes. While that execution indicates a covert philosophical horror and dread smothered by elaborate insults, the horror inherent to ‘50s Stalinist Russia is of a different breed one might think wholly incompatible with Iannucci’s style, and yet the marriage is practically seamless.

Hilarity and fear are often one and the same with The Death of Stalin, though thankfully the narrative avoids falling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of typical Iannucci antics followed with sobering reality followed by humor once more. Any sequence predominantly focusing on either tone can and does get swiftly undercut by its opposite, making for an excitingly unpredictable viewing experience even those who know the history of the depicted power struggle can enjoy, in a really perverse way. Consistently, it catches you off guard to the occasional point when you either don’t know whether or not to laugh or then immediately question your laughter as a sincere emotional response, aside from those moments of sharp writing where chuckling is all but required. Though naturally, given the terrors perpetrated by the Soviet Union, it’s an uneasy feeling that persists with gleeful, yet well-meaning menace.

And yet, it’s not necessarily the performers driving this feeling, playing their respective parts with an eye for equal exhibition of hyperbole and naturalism with Iannucci dialogue stuck in their heads. Which, of course, isn’t to say the actors don’t deserve any credit for partly making the film as entertaining as they do, but, unlike Veep and others, weren’t not deceiving ourselves into believing any of these characters will change for the better. Such misplaced well-wishing would be utterly fruitless, and as a result, The Death of Stalin’s star of the show isn’t Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale or Jason Isaacs, but rather Iannucci himself. We may recognize Veep and The Thick of It as projects unwaveringly displaying his fingerprint, but you’d be hard-pressed not to say either Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Peter Capaldi were respectively handling the reins on their own.

In essence, Iannucci’s adept ability to entangle the amusing follies of egocentrism and the cruelty of oppressive regimes is more the entertainment focal point than any performer’s line delivery. Now, that may sound like the sort of move of a high-minded auteur looking to exert greater creative control over their project – or simply bold-faced projecting on this writer’s part – but given the source material and the reputation Iannucci has cultivated as a satirist, it can be seen as the writer-director using his position to slightly scale back the humor for which he is known and from which he’s grown a following. His ultimate approach shows greater humility, respect for the material as well as those who lost their lives at the hands of Stalinism, its leader and his convoluted web of underlings and cronies. If we’re experiencing discomfort taking in the back and forth between comedy and atrocity, it’s partially because Iannucci himself potentially felt discomfort bringing together this tonal dichotomy, and though he can claim victory in the end, taking that creative risk is just as much a significant triumph to lean on.

Sure, it may play out like an extended Veep episode, but The Death of Stalin is still a gut-busting admission of what Iannucci is best at as well as an intrepid foray into new-ish territory. Like most of his work, it’s a cacophony of absurdity best exemplified by its ending. The immediate power struggle may close, but there’s always someone else lurking in the shadows, waiting for their moment to pounce. Only one can win the uphill battle, but at some point, even they will come tumbling down like Sisyphus’s boulder – there’s that comic nihilism once again.

4/5

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