The Forty-Year-Old Version movie review: Radha Blank’s ‘astute’ feature debut is reminiscent of Woody Allen & Noah Baumbach
Auteur filmmaker Radha Blank – the writer, director, co-producer, and star of The Forty-Year-Old Version – is actually 39 years old through most of her semi-autobiographical feature debut, an astute effort in which she plays a character called Radha, who, like herself, is a New York City-based playwright.
About to turn 40, The Forty-Year-Old Version’s Radha thinks of becoming a hip-star – as one does when approaching midlife. The movie documents her struggles as an aspiring artist in an industry that isn’t friendly to mouthy black women with opinions about what it means to be black, and as a woman in a world that doesn’t like mouthy black women.
Thus, Radha finds herself in crisis. Her once-promising career is stalled and the prospect of staging her new play is waning after she – to the chagrin of her longtime friend and agent, Archie (Peter Kim) – beats up the last likely financier.
And her mother has died.
Specific but universal characters & situations
In broad strokes, Blank’s film deals with the stuff existential philosophy courses are made of. But as is the case with most films that consider the issue of an individual’s purpose in the universe, The Forty-Year-Old Version is also very specific.
The story isn’t only about the angst of being an artist, or a woman, or a black woman, or even an aging black woman in the arts; instead, it’s about the unique experience of dealing with all of those things at once; everything rolled into one funny and thoughtful movie that even in its specificity is as universal as any film by auteurs like Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, and Noah Baumbach. Filmmakers whose movies are existential, angsty, and specific; yet, somehow, universal.
Admittedly, while engaged in the same considerations, The Forty-Year-Old Version is blacker and girlier than the work of those filmmakers. Indeed, Blank’s titular alter ego and Woody Allen’s alter ego, Lee Simon, played by Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity (1998), are much the same: New York writers, once promising, but now failing and unsure about what to do next. Besides, both movies were shot in dreamy black-and-white tones on 35mm film.
That’s also among the features that Radha Blank’s movie shares with Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986) and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). In fact, Lee and Jarmusch are two other singular voices long working in this space that I call the “genre of the semi-autobiographical existential auteurist (SAEA).”
Blank is a strong new voice in the genre, one that I prefer to some of the semi-autobiographical existential auteurists mentioned above. While Radha has her (mostly legit) complaints, she’s never as whiny and entitled as Baumbach or as nihilistic as Allen.
In addition, she’s a woman – and thus wins on that point hands down. None of those male SAEAs get women at all.
Radha the rapper
In The Forty-Year-Old Version, the character Radha becomes a rapper named RadhaMUSPrime, which is ‘sic – which means “very cool,” as opposed to just “cool,” in the language of hip-hopsters. None of the characters over 40 get it; all the young people do.
For those of you over 40, it’s a play on the name Optimus Prime from the Transformers cartoon series. The Transformers do exactly that: They transform themselves from ordinary automobiles into giant ass-kicking robots. This is yet another bright metaphor that Blank plants for the young and savvy. In other words, the ‘sic.
The lyrics she writes are also very cool, in that their content is what one might expect from a woman nearing 40 – they are stylized with rhymes and allusions that are clever, pointed, and personal.
Later in The Forty-Year-Old Version, Radha travels to the far reaches of the Bronx where she engages the services of a young beat-maker called “D” (Oswin Benjamin), a young black man about half her age. Their relationship is expected, but feels genuine.
Faced with the choice of staging her play – if she makes compromises of the sort she has been avoiding all her career – or engaging the Transformer in her and truly becoming RadhaMUSPrime, Radha finds herself pressed to choose one or the other.
This is the one notion in the movie that rings hollow: The idea that one must choose. That to become something new, something else must be left behind. Or, for that matter, the idea that compromise is selling out.
Neither of those ideas is true, of course, which is certainly something that Radha Blank, the 40-year-old writer, director, actor, producer, playwright, and semi-autobiographical existential auteurist filmmaker must know. Certainly.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
Direction & Screenplay: Radha Blank.
Cast: Radha Blank. Oswin Benjamin. Peter Kim. Reed Birney. Imani Lewis. Haskiri Velazquez.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020) Movie Review” endnotes
Radha Blank The Forty-Year-Old Version movie images: Hillman Grad | Netflix.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020): Astute Feature Debut” last updated in September 2021.