Fantastic Fest Review: Laughs Justify The Mean In THE DEATH OF STALIN

In which Armando Iannucci delivers his darkest comedy yet.

When approaching a new Armando Iannucci joint, one generally knows what to expect. Anything from the creator of Veep, In The Loop and The Thick Of It stands a strong chance of being politically-minded, caustically misanthropic and - last, but certainly not least - exceptionally funny. It gives me great pleasure to report that Iannucci's latest film, The Death Of Stalin (arriving in UK theaters on October 20th) checks every item off that list...and features the added bonus of being Iannucci's most mean-spirited comedy yet. If you thought In The Loop's Malcolm Tucker was too warm and cuddly, just wait until you get a load of these animals.

Interesting wrinkle, though: the savages who populate The Death Of Stalin are all based on real people (the script itself is based on a French graphic novel of the same name). You've got Adrian McLoughlin filling in the titular role, Steve Buscemi (absolutely knocking it out of the park) as Nikita Khrushchev, the great Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, Jason Isaacs (having an absolute ball) as Russian war hero Georgy Zhukov, Andrea Riseborough as Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, and a dozen other pitch-perfect character actors swirling amongst them. This is a murderer's row of performers, and all of them bring every bit of talent they have to bear on Iannucci's razor-sharp script.

You realize how The Death Of Stalin is gonna play out very early on: after introducing us to the soon-to-be-dead revolutionary and his motley crew of yes-men government officials (each, it's worth noting, more buffoonish and craven than the last), Iannucci unceremoniously kills off the Russian dictator, and almost immediately these yes-men are falling all over themselves to take control of the country. Initially, the backstabbing starts off small - a microaggression here, a pointed one-liner there - but builds over the course of the film until it becomes entirely unclear who might survive this transition of power.

Indeed, there's a violence to The Death Of Stalin that I found surprising, given Iannucci's past works (which have, for the most part, contained the violence to acts of verbal brutality). Same goes for the gorgeous cinematography or the neverending parade of visually stunning locations, neither of which might be considered trademarks of this particular director. Iannucci has never turned in a film that looks this ravishing, which serves as an interesting juxtaposition with all the top-shelf cruelty on display. I was gobsmacked by how beautiful The Death Of Stalin is; it's all so off-brand that it actually took me a while to adjust to it. 

Seeing how everything plays out in The Death Of Stalin is one of its greatest pleasures (the undermining and double-crosses never seem to stop), so I'll leave most of the details for viewers to discover. All you really need to know is that this film represents Iannucci at the top of his game, as in control of the film's weird tonality as he is delivering one laugh-out-loud takedown after another. You should also be aware that The Death Of Stalin represents a cast operating at the peak of their powers: Steve Buscemi's the MVP here - don't be surprised if he racks up some nominations come awards season - but Jason Isaacs is the biggest pleasant surprise; he snags some of the film's best lines, and clearly relishes the opportunity to play such a hilariously venomous character. 

Look, if you loved Iannucci's past work, you're going to love The Death Of Stalin. And if you loved those previous projects for the mean-spirited streak, you might even have a new favorite Iannucci film to look forward to. Get hyped, and UK audiences are encouraged to seek this one out when it hits on October 20th (US audiences will need to sit tight; a release date is forthcoming).