Radha Blank, the writer, star, director, and central (fictionalized) character of The Forty-Year-Old Version, is — in the movie — a struggling playwright. She was once a rising star on the theater scene, one of those beknighted 30-Under-30 types whose precocious early displays of talent were supposed to lead to a sparkling, enduring career. (Even though, as many know, such a career is by no means promised.) It certainly hasn’t panned out that way for Radha, who’s no longer an “under 30” but rather a straight-up, grumpy 40 year-old whose main claim to fame is still that prize from a decade ago.
She’s too old to get the attention of an upstart, according to the industry; par for the course in a “Next Big Thing”-hungry domain, she’s also considered old news, the kind of person to make you wonder, Where’s she been? Well, here she is: getting excited at the too-brief (and comically sad) sound of her neighbors having sex, channel surfing through the night, showing up perennially late to work. Her latest project is stuck in workshop limbo. She’s teaching playwriting at a Harlem high school to pay the bills, meanwhile, and though she’s not above it, look, she had higher hopes. The career? It could be better. Radha wallows somewhat in a sense of having been passed over, as anyone would. But the pain, the frustration, the rent, the sense of squandered potential — these things are real.
They’re also hardly the extent of everything going on in Radha’s life. A recent loss weighs her down. She clearly isn’t getting laid, hence the enthusiastic eavesdropping. The Forty-Year-Old Version, which is now streaming on Netflix, is, from its title on down, a satire of all of the above: the theater world, middle age, New York, the racial and gendered expectations of commercial art. And, perhaps most obviously, it’s a take on that canon of schlubby, autobiographical comedic protagonists played by the likes of Louis C.K. or, in the 2005 Judd Apatow movie Blank’s title invokes, Steve Carrell. There’s a lot of knowing, jarring, wonderfully provocative referencing going on here, with Version’s frequently beautiful black-and-white images of New York acting as an overt nod to a canon of auteurist comedy — Louie and its comic ancestor Manhattan come immediately to mind, and you get the feeling they’re deliberately meant to.
Because the thing that makes these works notable, in Blank’s world, is not only that they’re usually helmed by white guys. It’s not even that many of her peers’ careers are defined by the failing-upward career boost that Radha, in the movie, has been denied. What’s notable is that these movies rarely — very rarely — seem aware that black women even exist. This is far from Blank’s only idea, but like everything else here, she runs with it, makes it expansive and ridiculous, gives it form and warmth, livens it up with her own brand of humor. Version wears the clothes of comedy’s traditional triple-threat swerve like a Trojan Horse, a way of asserting that she belongs here. In another way it pokes fun at the “Since you liked Annie Hall …” algorithmic decision-making confronting not only viewers but, it seems, studios, producers, the entire apparatus. In another way — the best way — it also feels like sort of a Fuck You.
Which makes sense, since even though she shares certain middle-aged loser traits with these men, Radha is caught in a different set of crosshairs. All of this subtly comes out at the start of the movie, when we see her in class with a rambunctious crew of sex-obsessed students — one of whom is almost 20 and clearly in lust for her. These black and brown, hyper-straight and gender nonconforming youngsters want to make capital-A Art. They want to do “racial type political shit,” perform astrological spoken word that puns on “clitoris” and “Taurus,” or put on a play whose political ideas are ripped from the Richard Wright School of Racial Commentary and Sexual Violence.
But one of those students utters the words that probably no middle-aged person, and certainly no artist, wants to hear from a high schooler: “I Googled you.” Receipts. “Last time you did anything,” says the student, “was, what, 2010? 2012?” The other students try to have Blank’s back — one even points out that Radha hasn’t blown up because white people are afraid of the truth. Still, points are being made. “How’s somebody who ain’t had no real hit gonna tell me how to write a fucking play?” this antagonizer continues. “She ain’t no Tyler Perry.” Suffice it to say Radha doesn’t want to be.
The germ of most everything that follows in Version — the tensions between being the Tyler Perry and being the Radha Blank; between white patronage and “the truth”; between calling oneself an artist and having an actual career — sprouts in this one, hilarious scene, which also features Radha shouting back, “This ain’t Dangerous Minds.” It’s a losing battle if your best comeback is announcing, to a room of Zoomers, that you’re old.
The real Radha Blank’s comedy is hilariously observational: over and over, she nails miniature set pieces, quick gags that do the double duty of telling us something about the character’s world in the particular, and the world she’s up against at large. The plot of the movie is kind of wicked and free; the first half soars more than the second, but satisfaction and belly-laughs abound. The things Radha does to “make it” — including trying her hand at hip hop and involving herself in a production she realizes will make her guilty of peddling poverty porn — earn their cringes from the audience, and more than earn their laughter.
But they’re tense, too. Blank digs up and pokes at the tricky line a black artist, particularly in a field still as relatively rarefied as theater, has to walk between white institutions — which have the money and power, and can bestow a sense of material worth — and the black institutions which, catering to a much more specific audience, might have less in the way of funding and resources and widespread cultural power. The latter, however, has the appeal of making one’s work feel racially valid: “for us, by us.” For Radha, it’s the choice between the regional production her agent wants her to aim for, and the workshop production already underway at the pan-African-esque Oomoja Theater, where the endgame is doing something for the culture and not bending to the will of commerce. Funny thing about commerce, though: It helps pay the rent.
Blank’s whirling, self-effacing performance is hard to take your eyes off of. It’s as fun to watch her character fuck up as it is to watch her push back, or pull things off. And the characters she uses to populate this world are just as vivid, like the great Peter Kim as Archie, Radha’s longtime friend and conspicuously ambitious agent who’s just as bemused by his friend as he is, in his own way, supportive. It’s a staple of New York comedies that everyone you meet, everyone on the street — bodega owners, the elderly and unhoused, bus drivers, pedestrians, you name it — is a personality. Accent or no, everyone is New Yawk. The Forty-Year-Old Version satisfies in that regard by reminding us, in part, of the many Radha’s missing from that portrait, right alongside the parade of nebbishes. They aren’t missing from films by black women, mind you; but Blank’s film makes you wonder how and why black women are the only ones to notice them.
There’s a connection there between Blank’s intentions as an artist and her screen counterpart’s qualities as a character that gives the movie a real vitality. Version is, unabashedly, a crowd-pleaser — one that arrives at a time when the crowd could use some pleasing. But it’s as thoughtful and, in the way only great comedy can be, soul-baring and honest as it is funny throughout. It signals the arrival of a great movie talent. The joke is on us if we don’t keep her around.