‘The 40-Year-Old Version’ Film Review: Radha Blank Hilariously Explores Creative Life on the Cusp of Aging

Sundance 2020: This quasi-autobiographical first feature meanders a bit, but when it’s good, it’s great

The 40 Year Old Version
Sundance Film Festival

According to most platitudes, your 20s are for experimenting, you’re more grounded in your 30s, and by the time you hit 40, you’ve pretty much settled into who you are as a person. Maybe so many people scoff at these ubiquitous Instagram bromides because they often induce a sense of anxiety about where you should be in your life and when. That anxiety certainly fuels writer-director-producer-star Radha Blank’s delightfully earnest new film, “The 40-Year-Old Version.”

The filmmaker plays (presumably) a version of herself as she borrows her own name for the character, a playwright barreling toward age 40 and no closer to a successful career or a stable personal life than she was at 20. Known for once producing a play with modest acclaim back in the day, Radha now teaches a theater workshop for similarly adrift black and brown youth in Harlem. And like so many single women of the same age living in a 4×4 box of an apartment in the Big Apple must endure, everybody — from the homeless guy camped out across the street to the theater students to the bodega owner — has an opinion about her life.

Blank captures this sentiment with resonating ease, using editor Robert Grigsby Wilson’s cuts to the various mouthy interlopers on the sidewalk to underscore her own internal humiliation about the state of her life. She’s poking fun at herself and other women like her, which is as sincere and heartfelt as it is humorous.

Unlike “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and other man-child films that thrive off the comedy of being immature and male, “The 40-Year-Old Version” attempts to delve more deeply into why much of Radha’s life has been a long exercise leading up to what seems to be, at least in Radha’s eyes, a failure to launch. She’s feeling the pressure from everywhere to succeed and even desperately tries her hand at rapping after a few legitimate rhymes about white men with black-girl butts pop into her head. But ultimately, the film is about a creative black woman struggling to find her own voice on the Great White Way.

In order to get that point across, you need an actress like Blank, whose performance carries the film and is identifiable not only to novice creators but also to pretty much anyone of color trying to find a way to leap across the hurdle of white gatekeepers in any industry. That said, you also need the allies, like Radha’s agent and best friend, Archie (Peter Y. Kim, who finally lands a role with fantastic depth 12 years after popping up as “Business Guy” in the “Sex and the City” movie), and the protectors of the white-and-right guard like producer Josh Whitman (Reed Birney, “House of Cards”), who hijacks Radha’s very black production about gentrification.

In other words, despite Radha being embedded in an industry of make-believe, Blank needed to make the story seem real. And she does.

But the one risk of a film narrative that hinges on the shifting ambitions and general malaise of a central character is meandering cinematic direction, especially when it comes to a first-time feature writer-director like Blank. “The 40-Year-Old Version” is shot by cinematographer Eric Branco (“Clemency”) almost entirely on 35mm black-and-white film, which is a puzzling aesthetic decision considering the very contemporary narrative style. While Blank’s obvious affection toward Harlem in the film could be viewed as a love letter to the neighborhood, that’s not enough to shoot on black and white, which detracts from the spirit of the story.

And if there is a layer of Harlem romanticism, that’s just one more element added on to an already overpacked story that includes Radha’s artistic awakening, her situationship with love interest and beat master D (Oswin Benjamin), her cultural relationship with her head scarf, and emotions budding between the two fiery teenage girls in her class (Imani Lewis and Haskiri Velazquez). While some of these subplots are interesting, they’re ultimately unfulfilling, and they take away from the heart of the film: Radha’s relationship with herself.

In a way, it’s understandable that “The 40-Year-Old Version” is intentionally scattered, because it is about a woman grasping at straws in order to find her place in this very rigid space, both professionally and personally. But the film lacks the finesse to tell that story more cinematically, even running way longer than it should, as it roams towards a satisfying conclusion.

Still, when “The 40-Year-Old Version” is good, it’s great. Blank’s on-screen alter ego speaks to an audience that is also at a crossroads in their lives and struggling to make sense of it and find motivation to change direction. That’s where the film truly soars, not with the excess plotlines that only hold it back. Giving credit where credit is due, though, Blank’s filmmaking debut is a fresh, honest, entertaining, yet flawed look at a black artist — both Radha and Blank herself — in the process of defining herself. It’s invigorating to see.