Armando Iannucci's biting satire takes on history and black comedy in 'The Death of Stalin'

Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

It is a curious thing, this world, spinning in chaos, its politics no longer bound by gravity. It troubles and amuses Armando Iannucci, a sly satirist with a soft voice, who glances into a coffee cup and, with little warning, ditches his Scottish accent and imitates the leader of the free world.

"Hey, I tell ya, this is the best coffee I've ever had. I mean the Seoul coffee was good. But the coffee we had in our hotels, I'll tell you, there was one day a guy came in, he was from China. China, by the way, is where...," said Iannucci, as if hitched to one of President Trump's circuitous thoughts.

"His speech is like five apps opening simultaneously," Iannucci added of Trump. "He's engulfed in his own speech bubble. I don't think you could come up with a fictionalized version of Trump. He's his own satire."

Iannucci has been skewering the antics and insecurities of politicians for years. He's the creator of HBO's "Veep" and its British forbearer, "The Thick of It," and his characters speak in skeins of expletives and scathing syllables that reduce rivals to sputtering, withered messes. Like Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in "Veep," they are funny, bumbling and cruel, hardened in a chicanery that masquerades as public good while stumbling over vulnerabilities that singe the spirit.

Iannucci's new film, "The Death of Stalin," which opens Friday in Los Angeles, is a dark comedy about Joseph Stalin, the tyrant of the Soviet Union who killed millions of his countrymen from the late 1920s until his death in 1953. Stalin was a man of gulags and firing squads, a poster villain for the dangers posed by despots. He was at once coarse and calculating -- an ideal subject for Iannucci's narrative mischief and biting wit.

"I was looking three years ago to set a fictional dictatorship in the present day, because I thought something funny is going on," said Iannucci, who based "Stalin" on the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. "Populist movements. Nationalist movements. Authority figures in Turkey, Russia; Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Something's not quite right. Democracy's beginning to look a little precarious. It was funny in a grim sort of Kafka-esque way."

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Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs and Jeffrey Tambor, "Stalin" is wacky-ensemble political theater with a foreboding edge. Sycophants and connivers -- from Nikita Khrushchev to Vyacheslav Molotov -- navigate the psychology and bureaucracy of a communist state, where people went to bed fully dressed in the event that the secret police plucked them from their homes in the pitch of night. The film infuses menace with humorous set pieces, including Stalin dying in his own urine while apparatchiks argue over whether they should convene a quorum and vote to call a doctor.

"I went back and looked at Charlie Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator' 1/8a 1940 parody of Hitler3/8, and you've got some of the funniest ever Chaplin scenes interspersed with scenes from the Jewish ghetto," said Iannucci. "It's tricky, and I knew it would be. It would rise or fall on that balance. If we didn't get it right, it would either be too grim to be funny or not believable because it's too silly."

Russia has banned "The Death of Stalin" as an affront to its history. The film has already opened in Europe, and critics there have generally praised it. Some, however, thought it not as incisive as Iannucci's 2009 cinematic directorial debut, "In the Loop," a statecraft riff on plans by the U.S. and Britain to invade a Middle Eastern country. In its review of "Stalin," the Guardian wrote: "The tone ends up being oddly serious, the comedy bleak rather than black, and the final product is somehow both more somber and less caustic than Iannucci's sharpest, silliest work."

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