DVD: The Death of Stalin

STUDIO: Paramount | DIRECTOR: Armando Iannucci | CAST: Adrian Coughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaaces, Rupert Friend,Andrea Riseborough
RELEASE DATE: June 19, 2018 | PRICE: DVD $14.99
BONUSES: featurette, deleted scenes
SPECS: R | 107 min. | Comedy | 1.85:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1 | English ubtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio | Video  | Overall 

Writer-director Armando Iannucci can’t stay away from politics—thankfully. Following his smashing success with HBO’s Emmy-winning VEEP series and the highly-praised 2009 political satire In the Loop, Iannucci steps back in time for The Death of Stalin, a farcical look at the peculiar events surrounding the 1953 demise of Russian leader Joseph Stalin and its aftermath.

Based on a graphic novel, the film begins with an incident that leads mustachioed Russian dictator Joseph Stalin (Adrian Coughlin, Thunderpants) to be stricken with a stroke. While the murderous leader teeters between life and death, his Council of Ministers attempt to figure out how to handle the dire situation while jostling for power behind-the-scenes. Taking the lead as Mother Russia’s new top guy is Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, Win Win), while Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), Molotov (Michael Palin, Time Bandits), and secret police head Beria (Simon Russell Beale, My Week With Marilyn) move about in the hopes of leading the country—even if it means using underhanded ways to take control out of the Malenkov’s hands.

Aided by a top-rate ensemble cast, a witty screenplay that mixes intellect and idiocy in equal measures and numerous allusions to the circus-like aspects of contemporary politics, The Death of Stalin is a very smart movie about very stupid people.  Viewers may need a scorecard to keep track of the maneuvers and the players, but that’s part of the fun.

At first the film is a bit disconcerting, with the actors speaking in their natural dialects in the Soviet setting, but after a few minutes one settles into the proceedings and the technique doesn’t interfere with the barbed burlesque Ianucci presents. The film continuously ratchets up its absurdity level by bringing in new characters whose idiocy and vanity often top that of the main characters. Chief among these welcome latter film additions are Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria) as Stalin’s son, Andrea Riseborough (Nocturnal Animals) as Stalin’s daughter and Jason Isaacs (The Infiltrator) as the deposed Red Army commander looking to make a comeback.

After receiving high praise from most critics (with an 88% positive review score on Metacritic), The Death of Stalin settled in for a long run in arthouses and some multiplexes, topping out at nearly 600 theaters and taking in a solid $8 million. Fans of Iannucci were pleased with his sophomore feature directing outing, but despite its positive response, retailers should note it is still a relatively specialized title with appeal mainly to sophisticated filmgoers, political junkies and fans of the directors’ previous outings on the big and small screens.

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About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.