There’s an inherent absurdity to the brutality of the early Soviet Union, millions of citizens butchered due to a combination of paranoia and obsession with maintaining control through fear. Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep) clearly has no quibbles dealing in such a dismal historical context, squeezing hilarity out of the insane extremes of the situation.
Taking place in the days leading up to and after the totemic dictator’s death, it follows the ensuing power struggle between the members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Stalin’s cabal is a colorful cast of characters, ranging from Buscemi’s intially goofy, but increasingly grave depiction of Krushev, to the overtly evil Beria (Simon Russel Beale). While their naked attempts at grabbing power are often played for comedy, the tension gradually builds until a staged coup firmly lands things in fully dramatic territory. Balancing the two halves of a dramedy is always a fickle thing, and this is the film’s main stumbling point.
Occasionally the drama does work; a teary eyed Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) entreating to a beleaguered Krushev, “I never thought it would be you”, carries Shakespearean undertones of betrayal. But the frequent tonal whiplash of transitioning between Beria’s nefarious torture/rape scenes and the antics of the bumbling members of The Communist Party intelligentsia is jarring to say the least. At best the humor naturally extends from the frequent cartoonishly plotting, and at worst it undermines mass genocide and lascivious acts. Eventually, it feels less like a Kafka-esque exercise in the ridiculousness of a beaurocracy gone wrong, and more like its beating you over the head with its acts of Orwellian evil. But, instead of letting these dramatic moments linger, the constant wisecracking treats the trauma flippantly.
Still, while much of the dramatic is inconsistent, enough of the comedic bits land to deliver a mostly entertaining farce. Jeffrey Tambor’s weak-kneed Malenkov, and his increasingly desperate attempts at being taken seriously are a treat. Buschemi’s Krushev is the only character who feels like he fully belongs in both of the film’s halves, tying things together enough to maintain some semblance of coherence. Much like the people it presents, this is a film at odds with itself.
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