“The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Reviewed: A Playwright’s Boldly Self-Aware Comedy of Art and Compromise
The delightful chutzpah of Radha Blankâs first feature, âThe Forty-Year-Old Versionâ (streaming on Netflix)â"which she wrote, directed, and stars inâ"starts with the fact that she plays a character named Radha Blank, who, like the real-life person, is a playwright, mostly of unproduced plays, who seeks an alternative artistic outlet as a hip-hop artist. Radha (thatâs the character, as distinguished from the real-life Blank), a Black woman who lives in Harlem, was a young star of the theatre, the winner of a â30 Under 30â award, but now, months away from turning forty, has long been unable to get her plays produced. She works, without fulfillment, as a teacher of playwriting at a Harlem high school. She lives alone, with no romantic relationship anywhere in the vicinity, and she is mourning the loss of her mother, an artist, who died a year ago. She enjoys her hip-hop efforts, though they, too, prove fruitless. Then opportunity unexpectedly knocks: a nearly elderly white producer, J. Whitman (Reed Birney), agrees to produce her new play, âHarlem Ave.,â about a young Black couple in Harlem who own a grocery store threatened by gentrificationâ"but he demands that she whiten it up and add elements which she considers âpoverty porn.â
When a playwright writes and directs a movie, it should be no surprise that itâs teeming with dialogue, and that the actors are directed to deliver it with vigorous inflection. Those things are true of âThe Forty-Year-Old Version,â but Blank has also accomplished something rarer, more precious, and more original: she has crafted an aesthetic that frames these voices and seemingly extrudes them from the screen in high relief. The imagesâ"shot in black-and-white, often in long takes, often with piquantly oblique framings of the characters and with brisk camera moves linking different parts of the actionâ"foreground the actorsâ presence and ideas forcefully and distinctively. The movie is a treasure chest of voices, thanks not only to the dialogue but to the synergy of writing, acting, and visual composition. (The cinematographer is Eric Branco.)
That sense of intimacy and proximity is all the more surprising inasmuch as âThe Forty-Year-Old Versionâ is a comedy, and one that borrows from the conventions and the playbook of TV sketches, sitcoms, and Hollywood tradition. The movieâs artifices are conspicuous, and the positioning of Radhaâs character is familiarâ"the solitary urbanite whoâs a discerning observer of the city life that she loves even while she contends with its practical difficulties. But âThe Forty-Year-Old Versionâ is a full-circle city satire in which Blank doesnât spare Radhaâ"and in which the characterâs attitudes and antipathies donât take place in a void but, rather, snap back at her and make her feel their sting. With her loneliness, her frustration, and her self-conscious drift toward middle age, Radha has an edge of cantankerousness, but she finds it consistently challenged. She gets publicly shamed for her unseemly impatience during a commute to work, when the bus sheâs riding is delayed by the boarding of disabled passengers. She regards her studentsâ work with transparently toned-down disapproval, but when she tunes them out she loses control of the class. Her homeless neighbor, Lamont (Jacob Ming-Trent), calls her out for treating him with condescension. Radhaâs story is centered on self-consciousness, on conscience, and itâs mirrored in the bustling and jostling of her daily encounters and routines as much as in her major personal and artistic crises.
Blank fills the film with typesâ"her main characters are introduced in caricatures that range from tender to sardonic, yet their prime traits, too, are those of consciousness and self-awareness (or the absurd lack thereof). Radhaâs manager, Archie Choi (Peter Kim), is a gay Korean-American man who has been her friend since high school. (She was his prom date when he was still in the closet.) Heâs much more successful in the theatre world than she is, but he represents herâ"vigorouslyâ"as something of a special, unprofitable client on the basis of their friendship, which Radha sorely tests. When the two attend a cocktail party to meet Whitman, and the encounter proves disastrous, Radha finds all theatre doors definitively slammed shut in her face. So, picking up on her high-school passion and responding to a few coincidental signs and hints, she visits a young hip-hop producer, in Brooklyn, in the hope of finding a more direct outlet for her literary voice. Th at producer, named D, is played by Oswin Benjamin, in his first film role, and itâs one of the great recent acting dÃ©buts. Benjamin, who has an extraordinary vocal instrument, low and grainy and quietly urgent, also has a distinctive physical presence; he seems to fill the room even when just sitting still, and Blank perceptively deploys these qualities to define both Dâs character and Radhaâs personal and creative relationship with him.
The comedic complications of Radhaâs hip-hop adventuresâ"spoiler alert: sheâs not an overnight sensationâ"nonetheless yield deeply moving, thrilling, fine-grained bursts of creative energy. Her first, uneasy effort in Dâs apartment-studio, in Brownsville, turns out to be an extraordinary performance that impresses even the skeptical D. Thereâs a remarkable rap-battle scene featuring only female performers, to which D brings Radha and which Blank films with rapt admiration. Even more extraordinary is a sceneâ"the morning after the pairâs first night together, in Radhaâs apartmentâ"in which D coaxes Radha and himself, both mourning their mothers, to commemorate them in improvised rhymes, which Blank films in a matched pair of images, one from afar, as the idea arises and coalesces, and another, closer and in shadows, of the two as they reach deep into themselves to give lyrical voice to their grief and their longing. Itâs one of the most moving fusions of image and performance in recent movies.
Throughout âThe Forty-Year-Old Version,â Blank confronts the dramatistâs over-all problem of having her creative expression mediated by professional, administrative, financial, and social forcesâ"and the particular problem of a Black artist whose career depends on white decision-makers. One of the key pivots of the movie involves Whitmanâs admonition to Radha that, in order for the white theatregoing audience to appreciate her play about white gentrifiers in Harlem, they need to see versions of themselves in it. Needless to say, the results of such mandated compromise donât turn out well. Yet in the very depiction of Whitman, and also of the obliviously racist white director he hires (played by Welker White), Blank mirrors, with a sly and sardonic wink, the very same maneuver, albeit without the sense of compromise. In dramatizing the efforts of a Black artist to present her experience honestly in a white-run media environment, the movie links the New York theatre scene with the world of movies in which Blank is working.
Blank punctuates the action with brief montages of New York voices, whether from Radhaâs neighbors or students, that come off not as mini-documentaries but as Radhaâs sharpened and crafted, character-like versions of the vibrant personalities who populate her daily lifeâ"of the transmuting of experience into imagination, life into art. âThe Forty-Year-Old Versionâ is the story of the forging of artistic consciousness, of having something to say and creating a persona with which to say it; of finding ways to convey reality by means of artifice in search of inner truthâ"and confronting with practical wisdom the hostile environment in which that truth will be presented. âThe Forty-Year-Old Versionâ is a self-aware movie on the subject of self-awareness, a quality that Blank anchors, conspicuously and self-revealingly, in pain, grief, humiliation, self-doubt, and struggle. Itâs the element of comedy that renders it endurableâ"and enjoyabl e. That makes the entire movie its own happy ending.