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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: April 2, 2018

Stalin dies, hilarity ensues in Iannucci’s latest farce

Written by: Dennis Perkins

Paul Whitehouse, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tamboor in “The Death of Stalin.”
Photo courtesy of IFC Films

In the world of Scottish writer and director Armando Iannucci, politics is where human folly is elevated to tragic farce. In his British TV series “The Thick of It,” its sequel film “In the Loop” and HBO series “Veep” (which he created and ran for its first four seasons), politicians and bureaucrats – from world leaders to low-level functionaries – are repeatedly and hilariously exposed for the blinkered, selfish, bumbling, occasionally well-intentioned, invariably doomed clowns they are.

The best take refuge in creatively cynical and profane tirades, while the worst often triumph thanks to their utter lack of self-awareness or shame. In his British and American examples of all-too-human governmental gridlock, the satire carries a paradoxical optimism amidst Iannucci’s brilliantly crafted character chaos. In a revealing quote, Iannucci once summed up his comedic premise that “people today are genuinely frustrated because they don’t understand how so many clearly able people, concentrated in one locale, can’t sort things out.”

But what happens when Iannucci’s cast of deeply flawed characters aren’t restrained by a functioning political system? What form does all this fallibility take when the bumblers in charge have removed all impediment to their inevitably calamitous wishes?

That’s the idea behind Iannucci’s uproariously terrifying new comedy, “The Death of Stalin,” a cinematic depiction of the upheaval in the former Soviet Union begun on the morning in 1953 when dictator Josef Stalin was found incapacitated in a pool of his own pee on the floor of his country estate.

Iannucci introduces his nightmarishly funny portrait of life under Stalin’s reign with a simple phone call. A supervisor at the state radio station is ordered to ship a recording to Stalin of the Mozart performance that’s just concluded. Except the performance wasn’t recorded. A series of pratfalls, panicked orders, peasants recruited from the streets and a substitute conductor rousted from his bed in the middle of the night manage to recreate the musical evening just in time. That, even as the latest roundup of political prisoners destined to be tortured and executed is carried out all around Moscow, leaving the conductor pleading with his terrified wife to “say anything they tell you to” in order to spare her the awful fate he’s sure he’s headed for. Throughout the film, farce hovers constantly on the edge of horror, all at the whim of those men in power.

Stalin has lain in his “puddle of indignity,” as one of the anxious gathered government officials terms it, because the guards at his door were too frightened of Stalin’s fury to investigate the sound of his falling body. It stays there throughout the morning because all of those minsters are handcuffed by their own plots to seize control and their repeated, paranoid protestations of love and loyalty to the not-quite-dead dictator. Conversations carry layers of suspicion and innuendo as everyone protests their desire for Stalin to live, while harboring secret hopes to either take his place or avoid being killed by those who do. When Stalin momentarily rouses himself, his wordless gesture in the direction of a particular painting leaves the assembled officials debating his meaning in patriotic fervor – while Stalin finally drops dead on the bed behind them.

Iannucci has assembled a stellar crew of comic actors to portray these officials, all speaking mercifully in their assorted native dialects. (There’s nothing more deadly to comedic timing that a stilted accent.) Steve Buscemi’s motor-mouthed New York jabber (as Nikita Khrushchev), Michael Palin’s grandfatherly, pedantic ramble as Molotov, Jeffrey Tambor’s befuddled dithering as Stalin’s suddenly over-his-head successor Malenkov, and others all jar and bicker, insulting each other with Iannucci’s signature virtuoso obscenity like a practiced comedy team. Especially entertaining is Jason Isaacs’ Field Marshall Zhukov, a bluff, bullying military man with a Yorkshire accent and a fondness for punching through the bureaucratic bodies in his way. (Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin is presented as a Cockney thug, strutting like Bob Hoskins in “The Long, Good Friday” before keeling over, the offhandedly ordered Mozart recording spinning scratchily on his record player.)

Scheming against each other and forming alliances (often with the same people), this band of buffoons are direct relatives of characters like “Veep”‘s Selina Meyer, “The Thick of It’s” Malcolm Tucker and their coterie of assorted venal, power-hugry oddballs. Except that, here, Iannucci portrays a world where such self-obsessed figures exist in a world free from checks and balances. In an even poorly functioning democracy, Iannucci’s shows, there’s only so much damage a narcissistic, impulsive idiot can do. Here, when Buscemi’s Khrushchev attempts to one-up rival and head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria (a rivetingly funny and terrifying Simon Russell Beale) by allowing the trains to bring mourning Russian citizens to Stalin’s funeral, their entertainingly petty argument winds up littering the streets with 1,500 dead. In a world where authoritarianism reigns, life becomes an absurdist comedy of terrors.

Throughout, Iannucci manages to make this delicately frightening comic concoction function on every level, even that of a political thriller. Students of history will know going in just who wins this particular game of boneheads, but, even then, the pell-mell dysfunction of this suddenly leaderless horror of a state makes every twist of the slapstick proceedings crackle with tension. Beale’s Beria is an all-time memorable monster, his roly-poly frame and ready wit the outward skin of a master manipulator, callously casual torturer, and opportunistic sexual predator. Pitted against him, the put-upon Khrushchev gives Buscemi an opportunity to ply his fast-talking, sardonic shtick as a seemingly overmatched, more reasonable alternative. But, in Iannucci’s world of politics-as-usual as bloody, hair-trigger battleground, nothing is ever certain. “The Death of Stalin” posits that we humans are simply too enslaved to our own base instincts to be trusted, even with the systems we ourselves have constructed.

“The Death of Stalin” opened in Maine on March 30 and can be found playing at venues like Portland’s Nickelodeon (patriotcinemas.com), Brunswick’s Eveningstar Cinema (eveningstarcinema.com), Cinemagic in Westbrook (cinemagicmovies.com) and elsewhere.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

STAR THEATRE
Friday: “Dead In The Water.” The challenges of New England fishermen in an era of increasing regulation is the subject of this documentary from director David Wittkower who interviews frustrated fishermen from Maine and the rest of the region.

PMA FILMS
Friday-Sunday: “Oh Lucy!” Director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s madcap, globe-hopping comedy follows an unsatisfied young woman in Tokyo (Shinobu Terajima) whose drab existence opens up when she enrolls in a strange English language class taught by a rakish American (Josh Hartnett).

SPACE GALLERY
Monday: “Bobbi Jene.” Documentary about famous dancer Bobbi Jene Smith, whose decision to leave her successful career and lover in Israel behind in order to pursue a new phase in her artistic development tests her limits. Followed by a conversation with Smith in person.

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