Hot Take: Like cat nip for critics. They’re going crazy over it but you can’t really figure out why. Funny, farcical satire that is better than average but falls short of the greatness some have bestowed upon it.
On paper, you can look at The Death of Stalin and instantly determine how it will be received. Critics will love it. It’s a historical satire with a hot writer/director (Veep creator Armando Iannucci) and the ensemble cast is loaded with critical darlings. Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend and Michael Palin all score bonus points whenever they’re attached to a film. Well, maybe not Jeffrey Tambor so much anymore but everyone else. While critics will love it, audiences will like it but not reach the euphoric level of excitement the critics will. And while critics will love it and the audiences will like it, the film will essentially be box office poison outside of a small art house release. In its initial weeks, The Death of Stalin lit up box offices with a decent opening on 4 and then 32 screens. Now that it has reached 484 screens, the reception is cooling off. So, maybe it’s unfair to call a film of this pedigree that has already generated $4 million at the box office poison but it’s not going to require additional resources to count all the cash it rakes in, that’s for sure.
The Death of Stalin casts a satirical light on the death of Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and the behind the scenes struggle for power by the members of the Central Committee. While Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is temporarily placed as the leader of the country in the wake of Stalin’s death, it’s Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) positioning themselves for the permanent role as the leader of Russia. The absurd comedy follows the Committee through their decision on how to deal with Stalin’s failing health right before his death and the subsequent funeral.
The satire reaches an absurd level frequently and there definitely some scenes that are hilarious. This dark comedy has a few misfires, too. Most of all, it lacks any real bite and instead develops a sort of Keystone Kops-ish vibe in its portrayal of the Committee. Buscemi delivers some of the most memorable scenes as Khrushchev and Jason Isaacs steals the show whenever he’s on the screen as Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov. Tonally odd, The Death of Stalin occasionally feels like a screwball comedy but on a more cerebral level than your typical screwball comedy.
The Death of Stalin is built for critics and for people who love films lauded by critics. Being a satire, it’s not a film that’s likely going to come up in an Oscar conversation which explains it’s March release date. While I’ll agree that The Death of Stalin has its moments, praise that includes “Best Comedy of the 2010s” or “A Modern Day Monty Python” is a little overboard. It’s a funny movie with sharp writing, solid performances and a ruthless streak that takes some wicked enough shots at mother Russia that the film was banned there. Let’s not get carried away, though.
The cast is appealing and you’ve enjoyed Iannucci’s work on Veep and would love to see it applied to real characters.
Films that please critics typically do nothing for you.