Soviet Russia, 1953. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has died suddenly, leaving behind a vacuum with squabbling factions of underlings (Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin) attempting to seize power.
Looking over Armando Iannucci's work on 'The Thick Of It' and 'Veep', audiences know that his talent is making something as lofty as international politics appear much more baser and petty, like office politics. Although both of those are television, the feature-length 'In The Loop' worked as a sort of backdoor pilot for 'Veep' and was just as funny and smart as the series it birthed. With 'The Death Of Stalin', there's less of 'Veep' and 'The Thick Of It's off-the-cuff approach, but it still has every sliver of that incisive, blackly funny humour that made them so beloved.
The film follows a rigid, formal retelling of the death of Josef Stalin and the power struggles that ensued between members of the Central Committee to assert control over the Soviet Union, but it's the characters that bring it to life and give it humour. Like 'Veep' and 'The Thick Of It', it's a comedy about squabbling fiefdoms, populated with people you can't reasonably get behind in any kind of meaningful way. Moreover, there are times that 'The Death Of Stalin' goes fully black on the black comedy - almost to the point where you're really not sure if you're supposed to be laughing at all. However, it's the absurdity that keeps it hilarious, and how clearly defined each of the characters are in their own awful way.
Khruschev, played by Steve Buscemi, is portrayed as a pragmatic politico who's just trying to keep the wheels turning and introduce some much-needed reforms, whilst Michael Palin - as Foreign Secretary Molotov - is a doddering devotee of Stalin. Jeffrey Tambor, who plays Stalin's deputy Malenkov, channels his performance as Hank Kingsley from The Larry Sanders Show and plays him as snivelling sycophant who's bullied and cajoled by Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the ruthless head of the NKVD. Rupert Friend, who plays Stalin's son Vasily, is a delusional, paranoiac manchild whilst Jason Isaacs steals each and every scene he's in as Generalissimo Zhukov.
Iannucci paces the film well and allows for comedy to occur in the most unlikely of scenarios, capturing the utter stupidity of it all and how ceremony and pomp just naturally invites satire. One scene sees Buscemi's Khrushchev trying to talk during a guard of honour over Stalin's body, with him trying to convince the people around him that it's part of the ceremony. Another scene involves a jet overpass in the middle of a rambling, overdrawn speech by Stalin's son. A recurring joke throughout the film is the official state portrait of Malenkov, again Tambor plays it like something from The Larry Sanders Show. Iannucci places all these scenes and jokes throughout the film's 90-odd minutes with ease and deftness, but it also allows for a rich narrative to guide the setpieces rather than them simply occurring out of nowhere by means of improvisation or editing. Compared to almost every other comedy in cinemas today, that's unheard of.
With wonderful performances, razor-sharp comedy and biting dialogue from a master of the genre, 'The Death Of Stalin' is the funniest film of the year so far.