An amazing cast manages to make light of one of the most monstrous periods in world history.
SUMMARY (Spoiler-Free because it’s history)
It’s 1953, the Cold War is on, and the USSR is run by Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). Everyone is afraid for their lives, and for good reason, as Stalin’s Interior Ministry Head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) constantly has hundreds or thousands of people abducted or brutally executed for crimes both real and imagined. When Stalin suddenly passes away from a stroke, Beria starts to scheme to seize control, as does Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi). They both try to gain support from the various members of the Council of Ministers, including the incompetent Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and the Party loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), the head of the military Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), as well as Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). If you’ve paid attention in history class, you can probably guess who won. If you didn’t, then this movie counts towards college credit.*
Comedy is tragedy plus time, supposedly. This film mostly relies on the theory that a massive tragedy, with enough time, will inherently become somewhat funny. Surprisingly, it actually seems to work. The movie doesn’t have traditional jokes or gags, instead just relying on the absurd performances of the cast and the crazy (and probably real) things that the characters do in the name of trying to fill the power vacuum left by Stalin. Part of why it works is that life in the USSR was kind of inherently insane, with everyone doing literally everything that Stalin or his close allies want, regardless of the feasibility. One (true) thing depicted during the film, for example, was the time that Stalin asked for a recording of a concert which had not been recorded, leading to a replaying of the concert.
The performances are pretty much all amazing, particularly at managing to make their characters seem funnier, and therefore less harmful, than their real-life counterparts. The exception is Beale’s Beria, who is too cruel and threatening to ever seem particularly funny. However, some of the scenes that involve his police force, the NKVD, manage to be darkly comical in a slapstick sort of way. The other characters are all pretty funny if only for their constant disconnects from reality that comes from living in a dictatorship. It helps that at no point during the movie does anyone attempt to use any accent other than their own, regardless of the fact that they’re playing Soviet leaders. Having Steve Buscemi say things like “I’m the peacemaker and I’ll f*ck over anyone who gets in my way” works so much better with his natural Brooklyn accent than a phony Russian one.
Honestly, if you didn’t see this movie while it was in theaters, you should really check it out now that it’s on Netflix. I think it’s both funny and perpetually relevant.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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*Only at DeVry.