A few months ago at the Upstate Theater (our local art cinema [for “art” you may read “arty”]; a gift of God in a town as small as ours) I saw previews for The Death of Stalin. The concept seemed full of comic possibilities and I vowed not to miss it.
Miss it at the Upstate I did, but last week Oi-Tunes released it for rental and I finally saw it.
Oh. What a piece of crap. It could have been funny in so many ways, from Beckett to Bunuel to Pinter to Mel Brooks. (I don’t find Mel Brooks funny, but he has made it into the comedy canon, so I assume I’m just missing something.) Instead, The Death of Stalin is one of those genre-jumbling movies that come along from time to time, where you don’t know what it is you’re watching and it’s so pedestrian that it’s not worth finding out. The Death of Stalin is neither fish nor fowl, nor vegetable, nor mineral; rather, it is many things at once, each of them sketchy and perfunctory in order to make room for the others.
The film is described, in today’s Wikipedia, as a “political satire.” Well, yes, if you could describe a film about the Buonaparte family or the Mameluke Sultanate (now that would be funny) as political satire. The Death of Stalin’s main object seems to be to make fun of a bunch of people whom history already has pegged as fools.
Yes, that sometimes is done, but generally with the intent of satirizing the fools of the present by drawing an analogy between them and the acknowledged fools of yesteryear. The Death of Stalin is embedded in the villainies and absurdities of the Soviet craziness of 1952, which were quite unlike, and therefore do not reflect on, the villainies and absurdities we have to put up with.
Undercutting the “political satire” of The Death of Stalin which, as satire, strives – although it invariably fails – to be clever, is an effort, fitful at times, to couch it in Mel Brooks’ madcap style. To make matters worse, from beneath this clash of tendentious satire and feeble slapstick, seeps a simplistic history lesson that might have been put together as a quickie for The History Channel.
The acting, however, is phenomenal. The Death of Stalin is a showcase for a dozen or so of Hollywood’s best character actors. It was a pleasure to watch these pros as they did their best to navigate, without a compass (I’m totally lost, which direction is funny again?), through the shoals of a forlorn, tedious, shopworn script.
My emotional involvement with the tribulations of a bunch of sophisticated comedians dealing with a stupid script were not enough to hold me, however, and I switched off The Death of Stalin about two-thirds of the way through.