“Pushing the boundaries” is another example of the kind of self-serving jargon Blank skewers in “The Forty-Year-Old Version.” Her character, also named Radha, is a once-promising playwright who has had trouble getting produced recently. While she and her best friend-slash agent Archie (Peter Y. Kim) try to get her a gig, she teaches drama to a group of know-it-all high-schoolers. At a fancy theater bash, Archie finagles a chat between Radha and an influential producer named Josh Whitman (Reed Birney), who has read Radha’s new play, “Harlem Ave.,” and has some notes. “It rang a little inauthentic,” he tells her breezily. “I ask myself, did a Black person really write this?”
What happens next is the stuff of fantasy but also grounded, utterly believable feeling in a movie that engages with romance and reality in equal measure. Blank has filmed “The Forty-Year-Old Version” on luscious black-and-white film stock, giving the images a dreamy, celluloid-kissed sheen. Peppered with amusing person-on-the-street commentary, set off in their own smaller frames, this is a woman's interior monologue brought to life as both candid semi-autobiographical memoir and cinematic fantasia. Trying to maintain her self-esteem in the face of snarky students, memories of her late, adored mother and a New York arts community steeped in the lethal good intentions of White liberals, Radha eventually decides that the key to self-preservation is reinvention as a rapper.
That creative journey results in its own unexpected twists and turns, especially at the hands of an enigmatic producer named D, played with almost wordless understatement by Oswin Benjamin. He provides the beats to Radha’s raps, which address everything from dry skin and the indignity of getting your first AARP mailing to what narratives are considered “Black” enough by White gatekeepers. In one running gag, Whitman repeatedly asks Radha to work on his latest project, which features a different African American historical figure each time he pitches it. When Radha finally manages to get “Harlem Ave.” onstage, its climactic opening night plays like a cringeworthy case study from Centering Whiteness 101.
At slightly over two hours, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” feels overlong, especially considering its light tone and the punchy economy with which Blank makes her arguments. When Radha and D make a visit to an all-female rap battle, it bristles with aggression that might startle viewers who have been happily floating along on Blank’s witty word clouds. But that tough-talking wake-up call may be the point for a filmmaker who clearly understands that satire can be useful in communicating painful truths, but to confront them takes something deeper than laughs.
It's a foregone conclusion that “The Forty-Year-Old Version” will be compared with films by Woody Allen, Spike Lee and Judd Apatow, the latter of whom is referenced in the title and the steady stream of vulgar humor that courses through Blank’s dialogue. But even with those obvious references, she’s crafted something all her own. Her voice may be new on the filmmaking scene — “The Forty-Year-Old Version” won the directing award at Sundance this year — but she's a veteran writer-producer on such series as “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Empire,” as well as a clutch of plays. She's a newcomer who’s been around the block a time or two, making us the beneficiaries not just of her fresh new voice, but her wise and accomplished one.
R. On Netflix. Contains pervasive crude language, sexuality, some marijuana use and brief nudity. 124 minutes.