Age and mortality are concepts we all struggle with. There is not a day when I don’t have an existential crisis about the futility of my future because of the impending threat of climate change. But the iron willpower that helps me survive the incessant pressures of completing medical school applications and maintaining my sanity ebbed away during the glorious two hours of Radha Blank’s “The 40-Year-Old-Version.”
The film places Blank in a future where the worst could have happened: nothing. Blank’s self-named title character was once an up-and-coming playwright, but ten years have passed and, as she approaches 40, she has little to show for it, except an award from her early thirties and a classroom full of teenagers that may or may not hate her.
The film opens like most coming-of-age stories — Blank is shown getting ready for her day, late for work, establishing the fact that her life has stalled. And while these opening scenes are common tropes in such films, the comedic tone that they set for the rest of the film is anything but generic. From jokes about “white men with Black lady butts” to awkward moments of silence following an explanation of why soy milk is an important theme in her play, “The 40-Year-Old-Version” proves that not only is it a fantastic drama, but that its director has a deep understanding of comedic timing. In no other movie would I expect a joke about almost underage kids making advances on a 40-year-old woman to be funny.
On the surface, “The 40-Year-Old-Version” is like most stories that try and reconcile our obsession with youth with the inevitable aging process. Blank creates a down-on-her-luck character who, when she finally decides to go out on a limb and try something new, eventually finds herself in a wreckage of her previous life. While this is an incredibly predictable trope, the film’s details transforms it into something deeply personal. And it’s this balance between individuality and universal themes that makes “The 40-Year-Old-Version” special. Blank connects with her audience and gets them invested in her story but keeps them in their seats with offering a new perspective on the world.
“The 40-Year-Old-Version” explores a variety of themes, but one that it addresses particularly well is how we’re perceived in the world, especially as we age. The film consistently breaks away from its professionally shot atmosphere to what seem like iPhone videos of people that exist in Blank’s world — an Asian bodega owner around the corner, a Spanish salesclerk and a hilariously sassy older Black woman. These three characters serve as sounding boards for Blank’s experiences; we hear their thoughts about turning forty and their reactions to her decision to rap. All three provide interesting perspectives that help Blank explore what it means to do something for yourself even as the people in your life, whose opinions shouldn’t really matter but that we care about anyways, seem to scoff at your choices.
And yet, even in spite of everyone’s reservations about her new life venture and her decision to sell-out to the vaguely racist liberal play producer, Radha eventually finds herself in her rap and her playwriting, as we knew she would. It’s a liberating feeling to watch someone achieve their dream, or something close to it, especially at an age that most of us associate with the peak or even the end of a career. “The 40-Year-Old-Version” takes the popular concept of reinvention and turns it on its head, reminding all of us that 40 isn’t even that old — just wait until you get to 78.