It's almost impossible to anticipate the whims of tyrants. One may demand a second scoop of ice cream while his guests receive just the one, or another violates his own travel ban on Westerners to bring in a championship basketball player in the waning days of his celebrity.
In British political satirist Armando Iannucci's second feature, adapted from the French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin by Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), just home from a drunken evening around Joseph Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) table, gives a play-by-play recap to his yawning wife (Sylvestra Le Touzel) for her to write it all down so that the next morning he may more soberly study which jokes made the General Secretary laugh. Khruschev is like a comedian perfecting a bit, except it's for an audience of one person who has the authority to send him to the gulag.
But not even Khrushchev, with his detailed notes and the tomatoes he carries in his pockets should the need arise for a prop gag, can predict Stalin's next yen. Radio Moscow is wrapping up a live broadcast of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23,” when a call comes into the booth. The architect of the Great Terror wants a recording of the performance brought to his dacha that night. After an alarmed realization that no recording has been made, the station director (Paddy Considine) implores the musicians and conductor for a repeat performance. For crowd sounds, they drag in people off the street. “Don’t worry,” he reassures the fearful new audience. “Nobody’s going to get killed.”
The statement isn't exactly true. Stalin, after reading a seditious note slipped into the sleeve of the recording by the orchestra's pianist (Olga Kurylenko), succumbs to a stroke. In the morning a hushed alarm is sounded and soon Stalin's prone body, lying on the urine-soaked carpet, is surrounded by the members of his Central Committee, to a man, too cowardly to declare him alive or dead, and no doctor can be called because the man in need of one had them all either exiled or killed.
The members of the Central Committee are played by a roster of distinguished British and American actors—Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Chahidi, Michael Palin and Buscemi—eschewing Russian accents for exaggerated versions of their own dialect. A stroke of comedic genius if there ever was one, and Jason Isaacs letting loose his Yorkshire accent for the celebrated WWII general Georgy Zhukov is the pinnacle of inventiveness. “I fooked Germany," he deadpans. "I think I can take a flesh lump in a fookin’ waistcoat.”
There's not a decent guy in the lot, and though there seems to be no end to the bald-faced irony that turns the biggest laughs into guilty ones, the movie begins to sag a bit under the weight of their scheming. A literal shoving match almost comes to blows mere feet from the open casket where Stalin's body lies in state. Eventually, the maneuvering boils down to who can get Tambor's Georgy Malenkov, the titular leader of the Soviet Union, to waffle their way—the worst of the worst or just the least worst of the worst.