The Killing of Stalin

Everybody says that doing a good comedy is the hardest thing (which makes it so baffling why the Oscars give so few nominations to comedies).

Doing satirical pictures involving the military and war can be tough. Charlie Chaplin pulled one off on Hitler in The Great Dictator. Peter Sellers did the classic Dr. Strangelove, which still holds up. Even though the film version of Catch-22 was poorly received, I liked it.

Director Armando Iannucci (Veep) blew me away with his war picture parody In the Loop (James Gandolfini), so I had high hopes for this one. Surprisingly, it’s based on a pair of graphic novels. And it’s safe to say, not much of this is historically accurate, and it’s not meant to be.

When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, there was a short struggle about who would succeed him. And in the first half of this movie, that was a lot of fun. It started with Stalin calling to ask for a recording an orchestra just performed that he had listened to on the radio. Since the producers weren’t recording it, and feared being executed, they insisted the band stay and play it again. This time, they’d record it. That meant finding another conductor, paying the female pianist more money (she still holds a grudge for her family being killed by Stalin). It was great stuff, as we watch people brought in off the street, that probably couldn’t appreciate the music they were hearing.

It was even funnier watching Stalin having people over for dinner. They would joke and kvetch, all the while looking out the corner of their eyes to make sure Stalin was laughing and wouldn’t have them killed in the morning. It’s also fun seeing actors we love in these parts. Steve Buscemi (with a bald head and looking like Paul Giamatti) playing Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria; Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, and someone who is terrific in the part that the studio is probably now regretting — Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov. The reason I say they’re regretting it is, I heard a commercial for the movie on NPR and they mentioned all the stars but him. And online, I saw a picture from the film in an advertisement, that showed everyone but Tambor. For those that don’t know, after winning Emmys and awards for his role in Transparent, he was fired from the show after sexual harassment charges. My logic on that is…it’s not the studio’s fault. I’d rather people boycott the movies of Mel Gibson and Terrence Howard, yet they seem to keep making films and TV shows. But I digress.

Watching Tambor play a bumbling fool and Buscemi play such a humorous schemer is fun, at first. Then the scenes get repetitive and you start to realize…this really isn’t all that funny.

We’re supposed to laugh because Malenkov is wearing a girdle for his bad back, or because they can’t find a good doctor to help Stalin, since he sent them all to the gulag.

This movie might have worked better as a play, or had the Monty Python writers tackled this material. Instead, the jokes just aren’t strong enough. We’re supposed to laugh at things like a man joking about his wife being fat, or the numerous jokes about all the urine around the body of Stalin on the floor.

It was amusing enough that I don’t feel I wasted two hours of my time, but since I loved In the Loop so much, I wanted stronger satire here.

2 ½ stars out of 5.