Who knew Trotsky was so funny?

A comedy about a Montreal student obsessed with the Red Army hero is a surprise hit
Illustration by Lauren Cattermole

Leon Trotsky would have been amused. Seventy years after dying in Mexico from the blow of an assassin’s ice axe to the head, the iconic Soviet revolutionary has finally become a pop brand, thanks to the Canadian taxpayer. Funded by the federal and Quebec governments, The Trotsky is a $6.4-million comedy about a Montreal high school student who believes he’s the reincarnation of the Red Army hero. An unlikely hit on the festival circuit, this gem of Commie camp drew rave reviews at New York’s Tribeca festival last week, after winning audience prizes in Japan and Bulgaria. And at a festival in Siberia, of all places, where Trotsky was once imprisoned, it won the Russian Union of Film Critics prize. Montreal producer Kevin Tierney was in Siberia to accept the honour, which came in the form of a white porcelain sculpture of father-son elephants.

“It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. But the trophy was oddly fitting—The Trotsky was written and directed by Jacob Tierney, the producer’s son.

It didn’t start out as a comedy. Jacob, 30, first scripted it when he was 19. Born and raised in Montreal, the former child star (The Neon Bible) had just moved to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career. He had become a Trotskyist in high school, and Kevin remembers taking him to see Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom at Cannes when he was 15. The movie, about the Spanish Civil War, had a huge impact, and Loach’s socialist realism inspired Jacob’s original vision of The Trotsky as an earnest drama. “The original script was so bad, I started laughing,” Jacob told Maclean’s. “And that got me thinking that laughter could be a smart way to do this.”

The result is a cross between Norma Rae and a Bolshevik Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder) stars as Leon Bronstein, a Jewish teenager who organizes a hunger strike in his dad’s clothing factory. The infuriated father (Saul Rubinek) sends the spoiled child to a public school as punishment. There, Leon promptly takes over the student union, and the story puts a novel spin on the teen movie formula of a nerd mobilizing students against a starchy principal: the nerd thinks he’s Trotsky, and the principal—Colm Feore with a goatee—is the spitting image of Vladimir Lenin.

Running two hours, The Trotsky is indulgently long for a high-concept farce. But it’s sustained by the zealous energy of Baruchel’s irony-free performance, a parade of witty sight gags, and the solidarity of a strong cast—including the acerbic Feore, Michael Murphy as an old leftie professor, Geneviève Bujold as a strict school board commissioner, and Emily Hampshire as Alexandra, the woman Leon feels destined to marry because Trotsky’s first wife had the same name. For Murphy’s role, Kevin first courted Warren Beatty (Reds). He says the script got as far as Beatty’s house: “Everyone said, ‘The script is at the house!’ But Warren hadn’t made a movie in years, so there were probably quite a few other scripts ‘at the house.’ ”

What’s astounding is how such a movie ever got made at all. “If you sat down to pitch this in America, they’d laugh you out of the room,” Feore told Maclean’s. “But if you say, ‘Jay Baruchel is a pal of mine, we can shoot it in Montreal, and we can get Colm Feore and all those guys cheap because they like my dad . . . ’ ” Even in the Canadian system, The Trosky would have been a hard sell. But as producer of Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006)—which earned $12.4 million to become the top-grossing Canadian movie ever made—Kevin was entitled to a no-hassle Telefilm “envelope” of $3.5 million for new films. He had the federal agency invest the whole wad in his son’s movie. Quebec forked out another $800,000, and the rest came from tax credits, foreign sales, and a hefty personal contribution from dad—“about the same amount I would have invested in a really great education for Jacob.”

Alliance Films, which releases The Trotsky across the country next week, “was initially worried there was too much baggage with the title,” says Jacob. “I said, ‘I think you guys are grossly overestimating how much anyone remembers Leon Trotsky.’ ” In fact, the title tested well with young people, who thought “Trotsky” was a funny word even if they didn’t know what it meant. Siberia was another story. There the audience was amazed to see a Canadian movie about the man Stalin had tried to erase from their history. A joke in the movie about Norma Rae flew over their heads, but they loved the gag that showed young Leon at the wheel of a red Lada.