Sundance Review: The 40-Year-Old Version
The 40-Year-Old Version, Radha Blank’s feature directorial debut, is one of the more uniquely New York movies to come around in recent memory. Every frame is infused with sights and sounds that — especially for anyone who has ever lived there — unmistakably belong to The City That Never Sleeps, for good and for ill. Blank, a native New Yorker, clearly has an unabiding affection for her hometown along with her fair share of frustrations, both of which she pours whole-heartedly into a personal story that blends humor and slice of life dramedy into a heartfelt ode to theatre, music, art, and the city itself. Blank’s character, Radha (a heightened version of the writer-director) is a semi-successful playwright, named to a 30 Under 30 list a decade ago but seemingly stuck in a creative rut since, torn between telling the stories that resonate with her and navigating the New York theatre scene and its tendency towards simplified, feel-good stories about race that fit the comfort zone of wealthy white patrons. Combine that with her day job teaching drama to unruly and hormonal high schoolers and her struggles to come to terms with the death of her mother (herself an artist), and a mid-life crisis threatens to overtake her. She responds to all this in the only way that makes sense: she decides to try her hand at hip-hop. If that sounds like the result of a Sundance Mad Libs, rest assured that Blank has her sights set higher than the typical “what if x...tried to do Y?!” formula. Her character’s burgeoning music career is just one small piece of the story, a natural digression spurred by Radha’s journey, not the destination or the ultimate goal. In fact, the film is full of these sorts of narrative branchings, following Radha as she crosses paths with a panoply of characters — including her rowdy but sweet students, her childhood friend and agent, and the homeless man across the street who insists on providing unsolicited commentary about the state of her love life — that manage to feel mostly realized despite many having at least one foot through the doorway of caricature. This roster of supporting players are welcome additions, showcasing Blank’s penchant for writing witty dialogue — if there’s a knock on her comedy here it’s that it may be too specific, often relying on a knowledge of New York and its particular brand of theatre in a manner not dissimilar to John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello. For what it’s worth, this writer considers that a very positive comparison, but an audience not attuned to her frame of reference may find themselves growing restless over the course of the 129-minute runtime. A larger and more overarching source of frustration stems from the decision to shoot the film in black and white, a choice that neither has a cohesive thematic purpose (scattered full-color sequences add to the confusion) nor provides much in the way of visual style, making for an unflattering contrast with recent grayscale efforts like Cold War or The Lighthouse. But in the end, these are relatively small quibbles given Blank’s singular vision and her commitment to telling a sprawling and personal story about the sort of character too rarely foregrounded on the silver screen. The 40-Year-Old Version is a crowd-pleaser in the most positive sense of the term — charming, clever, moving, and a hell of a calling card for Blank, who makes it clear that no matter her age, she’s just getting started.