If you weren’t already on board with Iannucci as a true genius, The Death of Stalin should push you right over the edge, unless you’re some kind of an idiot. Calling Iannucci’s gaze cynical is to understate by about a million degrees, so it makes sense that said gaze has fallen on the farcical, idiotic and disturbing antics surrounding the power struggles that followed in the wake of Stalin’s death. In keeping with his usual style, this movie is an ensemble piece, filled with fast-paced, bracing dialogue that punctures both the systems of power and the people who keep those systems in place. He’s got a cast that just won’t quit. They’re all excellent, but special notice must go to a few. Steve Buscemi is better than he’s been in years as Nikita Khrushchev. Michael Palin brings humanity to his buffoonish character and his rambling, waffling response to a simple request for a “yes-or-no” vote during a meeting is a highlight of the film. Jason Isaacs is a marvel, and somewhat underused, as a profane army officer. Jeffrey Tambor is perhaps career best as the weak-willed Malenkov. Simon Russell Beale, in my opinion, absolutely steals the show as the ill-tempered, violent, reprehensible Lavrentiy Beria, the leader of the secret police. His performance kind of encapsulates the movie for me in that it manages to somehow balance both near farcical humor and a truly dark sense of dread. The film is hilariously funny, but it’s also really disturbing at times and the climax of the film, a chaotic coup/kangaroo court trial, is chilling and genuinely hard to watch. It’s the darkest comedy I’ve seen in a really, really long time, a movie that wrings laughs out of the venality and cruelty of its characters and then reminds you that the venality and cruelty has real-world consequences. It’s a movie absolutely of its moment, I think, but also one that is going to remain pertinent. It lampoons the idiocies of the political world and the buffoons that populate it, but it also embraces the deep wounds these buffoons have left in the world. You’ll laugh yourself silly watching this movie and then you’ll walk out with a lasting sting. Some would say this perfect balancing act is exactly what satire is supposed to be. If so, then I think this film is one of the greatest works of satire ever produced. 4 stars.
tl;dr – hilariously funny but also nurturing a pervasive sense of dread, this pitch-black comedy cements Iannucci as a true satirical genius; an amazing cast, a ton of laughs, a lasting sting. 4 stars.