Lyric Review: ‘The Death of Stalin’ falls short on laughs with spotty writing and a slow plot

Ty Davis

Despite having a few days to mull over the quality of “The Death of Stalin,” I am still unsure of what to make of it. By no means is it not funny, but is it not as gut-busting as the marketing or indie-buffs would have you believe.

As both history and the title has already told you, “The Death of Stalin” is a historical-fiction comedy, satirizing the chaotic time immediately after Stalin’s death. The story follows Stalin’s cabinet members Lavrenti Beria played by Simon Beale, Georgy Malenkov played Jeffery Tambor, Nikita Khrushchev played by Steve Buscemi, and Vyacheslav Molotov played by Michael Palin, as the four main power players of the story. But the story is mainly concerned with the back and forth dynamic between Buscemi’s Khrushchev and Beale’s Beria as each one makes a series of political moves to discredit the other.

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The humor is grounded situational comedy that takes advantage of the awkward and seemingly illogical moments in life, and the film is quite adept at this. No joke feels too exaggerated to break the illusion of the story. By applying an outsider point of view the film can cleverly make both the serious and macabre look asininely funny.

“The Death of Stalin” is now playing at The Lyric.  

But just because the jokes that land are good doesn’t mean the comedy is consistently good. The writing is spotty at best, some scenes are hilarious, while some jokes hit so lightly you likely will not even register they were jokes. “The Death of Stalin” is like a roller coaster, there are extreme highs, but also acute lows.

Cutting out some of the jokes might have also helped with the films pacing issues. The film thinks it needs to show us every little detail of how Khrushchev and Beria plot against each other when all it really does is slow the movie to crawl and stretch the comedy too thin for the writer’s ability.

The performances are all excellent. Steve Buscemi kills it as the sarcastic and wily Khruschev, Jeffery Tambor is hilarious as the incompetent but power hungry Malenkov, and Beale nails the sinister and conniving Beria. Though I wish there was more focus put on the rest of the cast because unfortunately, the three previously mentioned actors take up most of the screen time. It really seems like a waste to have so many revered comedy actors not have as much screen presence.

The only major criticism I have is that for a comedy the ending is surprisingly bleak. Granted the whole movie is draped in a macabre atmosphere, but nothing that would exceed the films ability to make a dark comedy. The ending, however, drops all pretense of being a comedy. The final 10-15 minutes’ tone comes out of left field and ends making you feel awkward for having laughed at all the previous jokes.

Despite the issues, I had an enjoyable time with “The Death of Stalin”, though I definitely could not hide a sense of disappointment and confusion due to the film’s marketing. Trailers would have you believe the film is a non-stop, outrageous, comedy. When in reality it is a lot calmer and grounded than what you might expect. Go in with tempered expectations, but also do not feel like you must see this film immediately.

Reporter Ty Davis can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @tydavisACW.