Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 9th, 2020
The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Writer/director/star Radha Blank, making her feature debut with The Forty-Year-Old Version, leads an appealing ensemble through an often entertaining – sometimes less so – meditation on the challenges of getting older as an African American woman facing multiple hurdles to success. Though the obstacles in her way are intersectional in nature, most come from the white establishment, which prefers its racial dramas sanitized and with at least one character not of color to speak to their own perceived progressive values. The film works best when it departs from its various overused clichés (of classroom dynamics, avant-garde theater, white cluelessness and more), all of which may be rooted in genuine truths of our world, but which nevertheless suffer from the pitfalls of one-dimensional caricature. Fortunately, most of what transpires is more original, buoyed by the extremely charismatic presence of Blank, herself, who makes an engaging protagonist at all times.
Blank plays a fictionalized version of herself, as “Radha Blank.” In this and other ways, The Forty-Year-Old Version recalls Robert Townsend’s 1987 satire, Hollywood Shuffle, in which he played “Bobby,” an aspiring actor struggling to make it in a film industry that saw him only as a vehicle to advance its own stereotypes. At first willing to go along with the game in order to earn a paycheck, Bobby eventually found his integrity and resisted the lure to give in, delivering scathing and funny barbs against the system along the way. Blank’s film is its own unique thing, but it shares a similar mission, trajectory and societal critique, with many blistering attacks on what whites expect from African Americans. Throw in the additional details of age and gender, and the film enters a complex terrain of risky pitfalls and comic pratfalls that both entertain and make one think. It’s a rich tapestry, even if some threads are frayed.
Blank’s cinematic counterpart is a struggling Brooklyn playwright about to turn 40 (hence the title), who hasn’t seen a work produced in about 10 years. She holds on to her “30 under 30” trophy as a badge of honor, though the glory days are gone and she knows it. She appears to make ends meet through the teaching of a drama class at a local high school, where her students alternate between respect and defiance as she half-listens to their poems and ideas for a play of their own. Her mind, however, is elsewhere: on her new drama, Harlem Ave., which she hopes her best friend and agent, Archie (Peter Y. Kim, Saturday Church), can get produced through the benevolent intercession of one Josh Whitman (Reed Birney, Molly’s Theory of Relativity). Though Archie – gay, Korean American and handsome – is not above using his sexuality and looks to set up a meeting with the older, white, gay impresario, it doesn’t initially go well when Radha is (understandably) quick to anger after hearing Whitman’s condescending, puerile and racist notes. Still, ambition has a way of changing one’s mind.
But Radha, inspired by her students and her own background in spoken-word poetry, spinning for meaning in everyday confusion, finds herself suddenly sidetracked by a desire to rap. Archie thinks she’s crazy, but that doesn’t stop her seeking out a fellow Brooklynite, a beat-master named D (musical artist Oswin Benjamin), who finds her lyrics, about being forced to “write poverty porn” (as she sees Whitman’s suggested changes), compelling. And so a potential second avenue opens up for her creative juices to flow, if she can only follow through and not be undone by her doubts. It’s in these moments that the film truly comes alive, Radha’s energy and sharp words holding more power than some of the otherwise easy jokes on wealthy white folks (who deserve it, for sure).
Overall, we sense where this is headed, with the “will she/will she not recover her soul” telegraphed early on, but the joy is in the journey and the many clever moments scattered throughout. At two hours, The Forty-Year-Old Version feels a little long for a comedy (much like Judd Apatow’s movies always scream out for a half-hour trim), however serious its underlying narrative, but this does not take away from its final impact. Sidebar platitudes and all, Blank’s writing still proves effective and affecting. Just like her onscreen incarnation, she deserves our full attention.