A tribute to midlife reinvention, The Forty-Year-Old Version (★★★★☆) delivers consistent laughs for writer, director, producer, and star Radha Blank. Playing a formerly buzzed-about playwright also named Radha, Blank stands in for anyone who has felt the sting of failing to meet lofty expectations in either their art or career.
The onscreen Radha — a forthright Black woman coming up on forty, and still rocking a ’90s-style boho headwrap and doorknocker earrings — was once celebrated among the hot “30 Under 30” talents in theater. Ten years later, she’s teaching drama to an after-school class of smart-mouthed teens, and constantly fielding versions of one question: What happened?
Shot in brilliant black-and-white, the film supplies responses both poignant and universal to that nagging query. Life happened, Radha’s mom died, a major relationship ended, her latest play manuscript was met with little enthusiasm. One patronizing patron, producer J. Whitman (Alexandria native Reed Birney, in a drolly pompous performance), even deems her script “inauthentic” in its Blackness, though, of course, Whitman happens not to be Black. But Radha doesn’t want to compromise in order to please the so-called Establishment. Although she has her pride and principles, she has no hits on her résumé, a deadly combo that does nothing for her longtime agent and gay bestie Archie (Peter Kim).
Still, Archie negotiates a deal to have Radha’s play produced, if she’ll agree to make changes. In a clever turn of the film’s script, just as Radha makes peace with compromise, she discovers a completely different outlet that allows her nearly total freedom of expression. She decides to become a rapper, and turns out to be a dope MC — “like Queen Latifah and Judge Judy rolled into one,” in the words of lesbian student Rosa (Haskiri Velazquez). Blank’s winning performance blossoms with self-confidence as Radha develops her flow and lyrical dexterity. Maybe she won’t need to produce the play after all.
But her budding rap career as “Radhamus Prime” doesn’t take off like a rocket, with one especially hilarious and cringeworthy flameout at a showcase organized by D (Oswin Benjamin), the enigmatic rap producer that Radha enlists to help her create a mixtape. A much younger man of many beats and few words, D challenges Radha, and newcomer Benjamin certainly holds his own acting opposite Blank in the pair’s unlikely romance.
A bit overlong, the movie (co-produced by Twenties creator Lena Waithe) flows between D’s Brooklyn home studio, the classroom, the theater, and the beautifully-lensed streets of New York, steeped in an Insecure-meets-Spike-Lee-joint, underground hip-hop vibe. The dense atmosphere serves Blank’s sharp humor and the plot’s underdog trajectory well. Meanwhile, Blank herself serves notice of a fresh, new comedic voice, and represents the glowing fulfillment of an artist who decided to circumvent the gatekeepers and create something utterly her own.
The 40-Year Old Version is available for streaming on Netflix starting October 9. Visit www.netflix.com.
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