Every once in a while, along comes a movie that is such a delightful surprise that I wonder how I’ve never heard of its star or director before. That’s the case with THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION, a film that stars and was written, produced and directed by Radha Blank. “Who?” you ask. Yeah, I know. I had never heard of her either but, after this film, we can expect to hear more of her in the future. (To be fair, Blank wrote and produced a few episodes of TV’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT and wrote one episode of TV’s EMPIRE.)
Not to be confused with the 2005 film that put Steve Carell on everyone’s radar, though the similarity in the titles is intentional cultural appropriation, THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION tells the story of a heightened version of Blank – let me call her “Radha” for clarity – a once-promising New York playwright whose career has stalled. Approaching her 40th birthday and teaching drama at an inner-city school to make ends meet, she finds her true voice as a rapper. Joining her on her bumpy journey of self-discovery is her put-upon gay, Korean-American agent Archie (Peter Kim, SEX AND THE CITY), who also happens to be her best friend from high school, her patronizing theatre producer Josh Whitman (Tony Award winner Reed Birney), and her “Hip Hop beats guy” D (first-time actor Oswin Benjamin).
In her feature directorial debut, Blank nails it, giving audiences a thoroughly entertaining ride into the state of mind and life of a single black woman who is facing a mid-life crisis. Cinema has tackled men having mid-life crises too many times to count but I can only think of one other time that we’ve seen the subject from a black women’s perspective. Both Radha and Blank show us that even 40-year-old black women still have something important to say.
Blank clearly put a lot of thought into making this film. THE FORTY-YEAR-OLD VERSION is shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock and Blank uses her characters to provide the images’ shading and texture. One of those characters is New York, which is seen in a style that is reminiscent of work done by Spike Lee or Woody Allen, though Blank’s love letter to her city remains unique. It’s the writing, though, where Blank excels. All of her characters are thoroughly fleshed out – even the minor ones like the two female Statler and Waldorf-type characters who don’t have any lines. We don’t know their names but we’ve definitely seen them at cocktail parties and other well-heeled social events around town. It’s not just white folk who think they are they woke that Blank pokes fun at though. She is an equal-opportunity slayer, taking well-aimed swipes at young African-Americans who think that by stringing a few rhyming words together they can be the next Kendrick Lamar or Lil Kim. Often just Radha’s stink eye look is enough to tell us what both women are thinking and it’s a hoot.
THE 40-YEAR-OLD VERSION is available now on Netflix. It is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s certainly the best film I’ve seen this year that I had never heard of.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 8th, 8:30 am HK time!
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