If anyone has a gift for ferreting out the “petty” in petty tyranny, it’s Veep creator Armando Iannucci. And so his pivot from an imaginary contemporary White House to the real Soviet Union circa 1953 feels like a logical leap: government as never-ending farce, ticked several decades and compass points to the left.
He’s also corralled a stable of beloved hey-I-know-that-guy! actors to fill out The Death of Stalin‘s cabinet of cowards, bureaucrats, and sociopathic kooks — including Steve Buscemi as future leader Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as First Secretary Georgy Malenkov, Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Foreign Affairs Secretary Vyacheslav Molotov (yes, he of the flammable cocktail), and Jason Isaacs as an Army field marshal whose surging testosterone nearly pops the jangly tangle of medals right off his chest.
As for the Dear Leader himself, played by British television stalwart Adrian McLoughlin, he’s not, as the title implies, long for this screen; a massive hemorrhage takes him mid-chortle one evening in his private quarters (nothing tickles a mad dictator quite like the pain and suffering of the proletariat). And so it’s left to his former sycophants to face the fallout of a suddenly rudderless empire, a still-ignorant public, and a ripening corpse, roughly in that order.
Iannucci treats the casual depravity of Stalinism — the mass arrests and gulags and summary executions, the Orwellian double-speak and constant paranoia — with his trademark surrealist wit, and lands a few truly great lines. (Homeland’s Rupert Friend and Battle of the Sexes’ Andrea Riseborough are especially inspired as Stalin’s damaged dodo-bird offspring). But Springtime for Hitler aside, there’s not a whole lot of great precedent in playing genocide for laughs, and Stalin never quite generates enough hilarity to justify its target.
Despite the rich settings and crowded cast, the film can’t help feeling a little airless too: These players aren’t history’s masterminds, they’re wasps trapped in a jar, bumbling against the glass in sting-or-be-stung chaos. When one exasperated character gripes near the end, “I’ve had nightmares that make more sense than this,” it’s almost too meta. With the real world so wobbly, is this really the moment to revisit one of recent history’s darkest eras as comedy? Maybe nyet so much, comrades. B