The 40-Year-Old Version December 3, 2020
2 Hrs., 9 Mins.
he 40-Year-Old Version was written, directed by, and stars Radha Blank, a playwright who, late in life, decided to pursue a long-standing-but-never-pursued interest in hip-hop. In the film, she plays herself — more “Radha Blank” than Radha Blank — and her avatar is also a New York-based playwright who, after a period of creative frustration, decides to revive her decades-dormant inner rap
star. This is Blank’s first feature as a filmmaker. As talky as one might expect the first movie of a dramaturg to be, The 40-Year-Old Version is a discerning and frequently funny debut — a tale of self-discovery that feels not treacly, as many movies fundamentally about dream-chasing tend to be, but pragmatic and organically moving.
As the action starts in The 40-Year-Old Version, Blank’s avatar — I’ll call her Radha — is at a comfortable but creatively unfulfilling place in life. A decade or so ago, she won a most promising-style 30 Under 30 theater award in a local magazine. In the years since, she has cultivated not a tangible body of work but a series of unproduced plays. Unable to find steady work in her preferred field, she has turned to teaching theater at a community college. The gig, while sometimes enriching, only reminds her of what she hasn’t achieved. (Especially one afternoon when a frustrated student brings up her flagging theater career — why are you teaching us when you haven’t done anything in 10 years?, the girl fumes.) Eventually a new play of Radha's, Harlem Ave., attracts the interest of a white theater producer, J. Whitman (Reed Birney). Thanks to some finagling by Radha’s lifelong friend and agent, Archie (Peter Kim), Whitman agrees to help make it a reality. (The chances at one point seemed low: after Whitman, an obliviously racist wealthy liberal type, suggests that Radha write a Harriet Tubman show he was hoping to make instead of pursuing her own creation, she literally chokes him.)
But Radha is soon vexed to find out that her new play — about married Black Harlemites struggling to run a business amid increasing gentrification — will only appease Whitman if it features the hallmarks found in most creative works involving race filtered through the white gaze. Whitman loves platitudes about love and “coming together” conquering all; he thinks gentrification wouldn’t be considered so bad if everyone just welcomed their new neighbors with open arms. “It rang as a little inauthentic,” he says with condescension of a more nuanced early draft. As Archie points out, though, Radha isn’t at a place in her career where she can so easily avoid selling out if she wants to make a name for herself. But she’s understandably cautious about pandering to a vision that isn't hers. Pandering rarely breeds long-term success.
Radha finds that the only way to meaningfully air out her frustrations is by rapping — a skill she had honed in high school but, out of practicality, never chased professionally. Radha notices that when she raps it doesn’t feel satisfying in the way a hobby — a joy that can happily be kept to oneself — does. She thinks she might have something; this is the most creatively stimulated she’s felt in years. She hits up a local producer (Oswin Benjamin) on Instagram, books a session with him, unleashes a bolt of electricity of a song she’s calling “Poverty Porn” into one of his mics, and immediately leaves an impression. She calls herself RadhaMUSprime — like the Transformer. (This is the stage name Blank uses in real life, too.) Radha thinks she wants to make a mixtape; the producer, 26-year-old D, is so eager about the possibility that days after their auspicious first meeting, he’s almost humorously distracted by the prospective project while working with other clients.
The 40-Year-Old Version doesn’t turn into a tidy “which route will she choose” sort of movie. At a little over two hours, the film lolls around in the disorienting
reality of Radha’s alternately tugging responsibilities, and what sorts of ripple effects can form when you begin to prioritize your creative vagaries over your everyday obligations. (She frequently ignores calls from Archie, messages from her brother over their late mother's estate, and D when she has a moment of what she thinks is clarity.) Unlike other filmmakers known for starring in their own movies playing a version of themselves (one thinks quickly of Albert Brooks or Woody Allen), Blank doesn’t above all offer the viewer self-mockery. She instead sensitively dramatizes the anxieties and thrills that came with this moment in time, however fictionalized it is here, without romanticizing the frequently nerve-wracking process. She’s as sympathetic to her own plight as she is self-critical. The 40-Year-Old Version is an enthralling display of self-perception.
The movie’s length might sound daunting, but Blank uses it wisely. Besides offering what feels like a fully formed alternate version of herself, the length ensures that not a side character entirely feels like one. Even though Radha’s students in the feature have comparatively small roles, Blank has done such an effective job of writing simulacra of who they are that we get a good sense of their wholes, for example. The film also features two of the year’s most exhilarating scenes: Radha’s first studio session, which mesmerizingly recreates the tingly feeling one gets discovering a potentially great new artist; a stop-by an all-women rap battle in the Bronx, which makes Radha see things
clearer than she had before. It doesn’t matter in the movie whether Radha becomes a successful rapper or a belatedly celebrated playwright. What affects us is that Blank and her avatar neither gave into ideas of something being “too late” nor sacrificed the integrity of their artistry for surer commercial success. You get immersed in the world of The 40-Year-Old Version, for all its pain and pleasure. I hope that Blank, who has made one of the year’s most original and engaging movies, continues to expand on it. A-