This review contains SPOILERS!
One of the quintessential and definitive gangster movies, "Once Upon a Time in America" is a long and well-made movie that skips across decades of time and miles of space.
The movie begins with a collage of unintelligible images. We see faces of characters we do not know, places that we do not recognize, and actions that mean nothing to us. A man hunt is happening. The men pursuing wreck through hotel rooms and shoot people, beat up friends, and eventually are given the slip by David "Noodles" Aaronson...a Prohibition-era gangster whose time is, evidently, up.
Taking the first train out of town, the next scene melts into Noodles returning to Manhattan after over thirty years later.
Not exactly sure what he's doing in the town that is a danger to him, full of vivid memories and scarring events, Noodles is determined to find out why he's been summoned back to Manhattan.
Thus begins Sergio Leone's extensive work that sometimes feels just as long as the thirty years Noodles spent out of his home town.
In all honesty I have seen only one other Leone film: "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"...and I hated it. The movie was boring and tiresome—it took a lot of strength not to dose off. I don't understand why it's held in the esteem that it is (Tarantino once cited it as "his favorite movie"). But with "Once Upon a Time in America", I can understand the attraction; but failed to engage fully.
What astonished me more than anything else about this film was how immersive it was. You really feel that you're being brought back to the different decades that the movie covers.
"Once Upon a Time in America" is told in three different ages: Noodles as a boyhood rapscallion, turned gangster; Noodles as an aging rock-star of the crime world; and Noodles as a an old man, looking back at his life.
We go back to Noodles as a young boy. He's probably not more than thirteen and enjoys peering through a hole in a restaurant bathroom to look at a young girl practicing ballet. Mesmerized by the fair sex, Noodles and his cohorts are driven by the Id for the first part of the movie. Everything they do has some sexual connotation, which is awkward because they are all so young.
One shot proves the youthfulness of the characters: one of Noodles friends, "Patsy", has purchased a cream pastry and intends to trade it for sex with a local girl. While he waits for her, he licks part of the icing...then a little more. Eventually, he devours the sweet in a lack of self-control—also because he finds it irresistible. Sweet pastries over carnal pleasure...he's still a child.
Noodles meets the smart and quick Max and the two become quick friends/colleagues. They decide to start burgling and fantasizing being gangsters.
Let's face it: these kids are brats...it's impossible to avoid.
Not only is it hard to take a character named "Noodles" seriously, but the film is also insulting that we are supposed to empathize with the man just because he is played by Robert De Niro. Seriously, the movie places a lot of stock in De Niro's star power.
Noodles is a despicable character—I couldn't find one redeeming quality about him. Loyalty gets thrown out the window at convenient times and chivalry is discarded from one scene to the next.
Typical of gangster movies, women are treated very poorly. Much like Scorsese's movies, women get thrown around and treated like objects...you just have to expect it.
But here, more than any other crime movie I've seen, women are dumb and overly-emotional.
Noodles is deeply infatuated with the girl of his childhood—the ballerina. He sets up elaborate dates and ways to woo her, but she refuses him—she's going to be an actress. So how does any rational man handle this? He assaults her on a car ride home and proceeds to rape her...what a charmer.
I think that it was this point in the film where I asked myself: why are we supposed to like this person? What does he have that makes him so great? I certainly don't know.
Most gangster movies have a period of fame followed by "the fall from grace". With "Once Upon a Time in America" we don't really see the full effect of the fall. We skip over that area in time and focus instead on a return...the return home.
It's impossible to deny that "Once Upon a Time in America" is very well-done...the production value alone is staggering. Yet a film with an imperfect protagonist needs something else to make it watchable...sadly, this is not seen in Leone's film.
The music is iconic, the roles are career making, and the violence is surprising.
"Once Upon a Time in America" is a movie deserving of respect...and a little skepticism.
Score: 2 and a half stars out of 4