Satire lives in Toronto with 'Death of Stalin,' 'Downsizing'


Not since Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be has there been a movie satire as audacious as Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. You’ll recall that Lubitsch’s bold 1942 masterpiece found hilarity amidst the travails of a Polish acting troupe during the Nazi occupation of their country. IFC Films' The Death of Stalin, set in the 1953 Soviet Union, isn’t topically nervy like that, but it has the same brazen mix of comedy and terror—the comedy coming out of the absurdity of the totalitarian mindset.

Iannucci first gained notice as the creator of the British comedy series “The Thick of It,” about political spin doctors, which spun off to the witty feature film In The Loop. Then he created “Veep,” the acclaimed, Emmy-winning HBO comedy series about Washington politics. For his second feature, he’s imagined the savage political infighting that ensued with the demise of longtime dictator Josef Stalin—and savage is truly the apt description. Iannucci doesn’t soft-pedal the extreme, arbitrary cruelty of the era, which may lead some to wonder what scenes of sudden execution are doing in an ostensible comedy. It’s a valid argument, but those moments accentuate the insanity of the climate under which its vain central characters jockey for power.

The tone is set in the opening scene: a radio broadcast of a classical-music concert. The radio producer (Paddy Considine) receives a phone call from Stalin himself demanding delivery of a recording of the concert: trouble is, the concert wasn’t recorded, and the producer must hastily reassemble the orchestra and the audience for an encore performance, and replace the conductor who has just been knocked unconscious from a silly accident. When Stalin issues an order, everyone quakes.

The true intrigue begins when Stalin suffers a debilitating and ultimately fatal stroke, and his subordinates start plotting. Chief among them is Beria (a great role for the terrific British stage actor Simon Russell Beale), who seems the smartest and most calculating of the bunch until he himself is outsmarted. Iannucci casts a mix of British and American actors and doesn’t care that they’re speaking in their native accents, thus accounting for the crazy but inspired casting of Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. The irresistible cast also includes Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s paranoid, idiot son Vasily. This comedy goes extremely dark near the end, but its wicked portrait of naked self-interest masquerading as governance seems oddly timely, despite the Stalin-era context.

There was more satire on the Toronto schedule with Alexander Payne’s very ambitious Downsizing, which Paramount Pictures opens on Dec. 22. Payne began his career as a sly satirist with the films Citizen Ruth and Election, and here he goes for broke with the wild concept of a scientific discovery that enables people to be shrunk to a small fraction of their size. The upside? Conservation of the world’s resources and the ability to live like royalty on a modest paycheck.

Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig are a struggling middle-class couple who decide to take the miniaturization plunge, but things get complicated. Payne’s film, co-written with his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, is stronger in its impressive first half, which offers a fantastical, highly detailed vision of the shrinking process. Leisureland, the enclosed community where many of the little people reside, is at first presented as an antiseptic utopia, but gradually it’s revealed that not everyone is benefitting from this upscale construct. In its second half, Downsizing becomes virtually a different movie about class inequality, with a new character, a crippled Vietnamese woman played by the feisty Hong Chau, taking over the narrative. Audiences thrilled by the film’s elaborate sci-fi setup may have trouble transitioning to the movie Downsizing becomes, but there’s no denying this is a picture with a lot on its mind about the nature of happiness and fulfillment.

Another bizarre fantasy world is presented in Paramount's mother!, perhaps the most divisive film the Toronto Fest is offering this year. Owing a debt to the Roman Polanski classic Rosemary’s Baby, Darren Aronofsky’s latest takes that film’s climactic horror of a mother subjected to evil forces and multiplies it exponentially. In films like Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan, Aronofsky has been a filmmaker who goes so far over the top, there’s no safe landing in sight. But mother! takes that tendency to an extreme new level. The film is intended as a parable: The buffeted young woman played by Jennifer Lawrence is nothing less than the embodiment of Mother Earth herself. She’s married to a celebrated poet (played by Javier Bardem), who represents the artist who pursues inspiration no matter the cost to those closest to him.

The film begins with a horrific image of Lawrence in flames, followed by the reconstitution of the big house, once burned to a crisp in a fire, where she and Bardem reside. The creepiness begins with the arrival of an unannounced, seemingly consumptive visitor (Ed Harris), with whom Bardem instantly bonds. The next day brings his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, terrific), a sneering, condescending, presumptuous woman who keeps asking Lawrence inappropriate questions. Then arrive the couple’s fiercely bickering sons, at which point things get very ugly. Throughout, the vulnerable Lawrence is treated like a doormat—but all is instantly forgiven when she and Bardem have sex and she wakes up the next morning with a beatific smile and the intuition that she’s pregnant.

Where this all leads will have your jaw on the floor: It’s like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come alive. Credit Aronofsky with marshaling one of the most ugly and frenetic visions of human nature at its worst. But some of the details are stomach-churning, especially his blunt and graphic treatment of his leading lady. It’s also bothersome that Lawrence as mother has so little agency here; she’s a punching bag, both physically and psychologically. This dishrag isn’t the Jennifer Lawrence we’ve grown to admire: strong, shrewd, scrappy and assertive. Aronofsky has said the movie is meant as a response to what we humans are doing to Mother Earth, but this flesh-and-blood dramatization of his outrage is no pleasure to watch. But it’s an experience—I’ll give him that.