The 40-Year-Old-Version (2020) ‘Netflix’ Review: An Incredibly Funny, Stylish Comedy
There’s always an implicit skepticism that comes with the screenplays written by playwrights. How do you distinguish between the storytelling for the stage and the screen? Fortunately, with the opening minutes of the dramatist Radha Blank’s directorial debut The 40-Year-Old Version, the dilemma goes out of the window. Through a semi-documentary style, she perfectly sets up the mood of the film. Also, she manages to deliver a forceful, true-life comment on the joys of turning forty. Eventually, with a laid-back pace, she manages to evoke what coming-of-age means for a lonely woman in New York.
The twist being, this woman, the protagonist of The 40-Year-Old Version, is Radha herself. But instead of taking the obvious path of meta-cinema, she crafts herself with marvelous insight which is as sweet as it is refreshing. This works for the most part because her filmmaking choices are both wonderfully familiar and also infectiously distinguished from what one would come to expect. It’s a skilfully mounted blend of Radha’s tremendous musicality and the vision of Greta Gerwig. The result is an immensely comforting and extremely realistic representation of loneliness and longing. Blank carefully looks through herself in the satirical nature of the narrative. Visibly, it feels like a learning process in itself, as she learns to translate an entire slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama to the screen.
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With a narrative as freestyle as a captivating rap, she hits all the right notes. The tale of The 40-Year-Old Version follows Radha, a black playwright who teaches dramatism to the borderline street-smart students of Harlem Ave. With the help of her agent and long-time friend Archie, she meets a wealthy white producer who suggests her work needs to focus more on Black suffering. When the deal doesn’t sit well with her, she throttles him in the middle of a party. At a loss over what to do with her career, she hears rap music blasting outside her apartment and is inspired to start lettering raps, following an appetite she developed and abandoned in high school. Tracking down D, a music producer, she simulates the name RadhaMUSprime. Archie supposes she is going through a breakdown. The rest of the narrative follows Radha’s struggle as she juggles the three dynamics at once, putting a foot across either side with constant unease and conjecture.
Radha, in her screenplay, inserts a love angle, a no-no topic, and a lot of black representation. But by playing with a lot of tones, she achieves a form of filmmaking the constantly surprises the audience with an unmistakable charm. Shot completely in black and white in a stunning 35 mm format, the technical competence is appreciative of the pleasant humour. The cinematography by Eric Branco is wonderfully self-aware. It caters to the independent spirit of the film, and its director. Robert Grigsby Wilson delivers with his obscure editing skills.
But in the end, The 40-Year-Old Version belongs to Radha Blank. In the film, she is more than just a woman, a rapper, or a playwright. She is a distinctive voice who succeeds in being heard. A gifted actress who elevates the film’s expressive, minimalist mastery. And an artist to look for. The way she progressively depicts homosexuality, and crafts a gentle romance, work. The film does have a bland and tedious second half and Blank, though superb in her filmmaking, loses the hold of her narrative.
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But the fact remains that she develops a moving character study about the loneliness of a woman and how the world discerns her. The 40-Year-Old Version is an incredibly funny, stylish comedy that deserves to be seen. And an exciting talent to look for in Radha Blank.