The concept of the “elevated genre film” has recently become fashionable. Critic Bilge Ebiri wrote an essay about it for Vulture last year, which offered a provisional definition: “The demands of genre — the jump scares, the spectacle, the pulse-pounding suspense, etc. — become secondary to the movies’ emotional undercurrents and the filmmakers’ aesthetic and thematic obsessions.”
Its popularity is tied to a snobbery that only accepts the pleasures of thrillers or horror films if they’re tied to overt and explicitly progressive politics or made by directors with a pedigree in independent cinema. Thus, we get reviews of Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” remake that treat him like a great artist while condescending to Dario Argento and his original masterpiece because Guadagnino can talk for half an hour about the feminist subtext and references to German history embedded in his film.
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s work has always contained strong genre elements, without comfortably fitting into conventional thriller modes. He uses them as a jump-off for investigations of morality and character. His latest film “Everybody Knows,” which was made in Spain, revises the narrative of his 2009 “About Elly.” But it comes off half-baked, as though he tried something as contradictory as mashing up Pierre Morel’s “Taken,” with its story of a middle-aged adult tracking down their kidnapped child, and the aesthetic of Jean Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game.” While the Iranian cinema that made a splash in the West in the ‘90s had a grounding in neo-realism and documentary, Farhadi’s work has never shared those influences. He has a degree in theater, although he only incorporated it into his cinema with his last movie, “The Salesman.” If Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close Up,” the most acclaimed Iranian film in the West until the release of “A Separation,” mixes element of narrative and non-fiction while sticking close to reality, Farhadi’s films never pretend to anything but extremely stylized fiction.
The plot of “About Elly” pivots around the mysterious disappearance of the servant of a group of middle-class urbanites who have come to a rural lake for a weekend vacation. In “Everybody Knows,” Laura (Penélope Cruz) has traveled to Spain from her native Argentina for the wedding of her sister. Her unemployed husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) stayed at home, searching for work. Laura hits it off with her former lover Paco (a bearish Javier Bardem). Although Laura’s daughter has a good time flirting with a boy in the early scenes of “Everybody Knows,” she acts dazed and drugged at the wedding and then disappears. The rest of “Everybody Knows” is concerned with the attempts of Laura and the rest of her family to solve the kidnapping, which may be an inside job.
“Everybody Knows” fits neatly into the Farhadi canon: it uses thriller elements as a pretext to explore class tension and how a family copes when its togetherness is tested. In this case, there’s also the fact that many of the characters are Argentine, but the setting is Spain, and a colonial legacy lingers over their interactions. Farhadi himself doesn’t speak Spanish, though he’s the sole writer on this script. (It’s the second film he’s made outside Iran following the breakthrough of “A Separation.”) Maybe as a result, “Everybody Knows” has a bland, Euro-pudding quality. Despite the local references and the fact that this is a repeat pairing for Cruz and Bardem, the story could have been set anywhere.
The film runs 133 minutes and suffers from a sense of excess. The section before the kidnapping runs relatively long but once it happens, it seems to exist only as a set-up. The real drama takes place afterwards, and largely among Cruz, Darin, and Bardem, despite a big ensemble cast and, at best, direction and acting that give a convincing sense of life spiraling out of control. “Everybody Knows” embraces melodrama openly. Cruz gives a larger-than-life performance, while Darin and Bardem embody middle-aged suffering in ways that are more complex than her character is allowed to.
If Farhadi’s last two films, “The Past” and “The Salesman,” were flawed, they at least felt like no one else could have written and directed them. As much as “Everybody Knows” draws on “About Elly,” it loses something in shifting the setting from an Iran sketched with intimate knowledge to a Spain shot with “beautiful” cinematography that looks like dozens of middlebrow imports. It could’ve been made by a talented but uninspired director influenced by Farhadi.
EVERYBODY KNOWS | Directed by Asghar Farhadi | Focus Features | In Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Feb. 8 | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St., angelikafi