- Courtesy Of Jeong Park/netflix
- PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST Blank plays a onetime wunderkind hitting middle age in her fresh, funny comedy.
Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I caught up with playwright and TV writer Radha Blank's The Forty-Year-Old Version, a Netflix original that is popping up on some 2020 "best of" lists.
When she appeared on a prestigious "30 under 30" list, playwright Radha (Blank) thought her star was ascending. Now, as the lifelong New Yorker approaches her 40th birthday, even the high school kids she teaches rib her about her stalled career. Her love life? Also a nonstarter, as the smart-mouthed guy who lives on her neighbor's stoop is all too eager to remind her.
Radha's best friend and agent, Archie (Peter Kim), pulls strings to get her new play produced on Broadway, but the deal comes with strings of its own. In the throes of a midlife crisis, Radha tries something new: expressing her frustrations in ferocious raps. When she enlists the help of hip young producer D (Oswin Benjamin) to put her work to a beat and starts performing as RadhaMUS Prime, Archie thinks she's taken leave of her senses. But could she finally be finding her voice?
Will you like it?
Shot in beautiful black-and-white, The Forty-Year-Old Version recalls Woody Allen in its neuroses, Spike Lee in its punchiness and its "woman on the street" bits in which Radha's neighbors act as a Greek chorus, and both of those filmmakers in its loving eye for New York City. Despite those obvious influences, the film is primarily a showcase for writer, director and star Blank. Her jokes fly fast and furious, some broad and others stiletto-pointed; while not every one of them lands, more than enough do.
On the broader side, there are the antics of Radha's students, who compete for her attention as they craft dramatic works that are inevitably all about their raging hormones. On the more pointed side, theatergoers will appreciate the offhand running joke about companies that attempt to push the envelope by producing travesties such as "an all-male Steel Magnolias" and "an integrated Fences."
Funniest and most insightful, though, are RadhaMUS Prime's raps. They range from the uproariously random "White Man With a Black Woman's Butt" to the cuttingly satirical "Poverty Porn," in which Radha lists the elements that white producers expect to see in Black film and theater: "No happy Blacks in the plotlines, please / But a crane shot of Big Momma crying on her knees."
Those are the expectations Radha grapples with as a writer, pressured by her fancy new producer to turn her slice-of-life tale of business owners in Harlem into a gentrification drama with a prominent white character. Blank makes viewers painfully (and hilariously) aware of the pandering stereotypes that too many take for granted. She elegantly poses a question often asked these days but rarely answered, at least by Hollywood: Why do the awards tend to go to stories about racial oppression rather than about Black people just living?
"Just living" is a lot of what Radha does in the movie, yet it always has forward momentum. In addition to the many absurdities of the theater world and the aging process, the film explores tenderness — between Radha and D, Radha and Archie and, perhaps most centrally, Radha and her late mother, who was a visual artist. The struggle to accept a parent's death is a staple of midlife dramas, but in this case, Radha's fear that she'll suffer the same obscurity as her mom gives the theme a special poignancy.
The Forty-Year-Old Version is like a semi-inebriated brunch with your funniest, least inhibited friend; while it's long for a comedy at 124 minutes, I never paused it to check the run time. Blank's vibrant portrait of urban living may not be grim or gritty enough to snag an Oscar, but as a panacea to the pangs of pandemic midwinter, it's more than worth your while.
If you like this, try...
"She's Gotta Have It" (2017-19; Netflix): Blank has writer and producer credits on this comedy series created by Spike Lee, based on his breakout 1986 film about a young woman juggling three lovers in New York City.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020; Netflix): Generations separate Blank from blues legend Ma Rainey (1886-1939). But, in this adaptation of August Wilson's play, Rainey also has plenty to say about what it means to be a Black female artist in a white-dominated culture. Viola Davis plays her in a fierce, award-worthy performance.
Girls Trip (2017; Hulu, Sling TV, rentable): Four middle-aged friends rediscover their sense of fun and their sisterhood at a music festival in the hit comedy that gave Tiffany Haddish her breakout role.