Once Upon a Time in America is Sergio Leone’s epic tale of the lives of four Jewish gangsters in New York City. The period spans decades, ending in the 1970's, but focuses on three periods — the childhood of the gangsters on the Lower East Side, their young adulthood and the old age of the survivors.
The protagonist, in a manner of speaking, is Noodles (Robert DeNiro), who along with Max (James Woods) calls the shots for the gang. The story focuses on their odd friendship and their relationships with the other gangsters (William Forsythe and James Hayden), and with Fat Moe (John Rapp), a non-gangster friend from the neighborhood.
Watching Once Upon a Time in America is a very strange experience. Director Sergio Leone directs with the same eclectic, erratic style he employed in his better-known “spaghetti westerns” starring Clint Eastwood. The result is an exquisite, ridiculous movie.
At least it’s a thing of beauty to look at, and this gets you half-way there. At times, the movie has overwhelming visual impact -- when Leone films the actors close-up, they look like portraits painted by the Great Masters, and in wider shots he frames the actors so that they interact electrically with the locations or sets. And the sets are themselves beautifully produced — his reconstruction of the Lower East Side, for instance, is vivid and incredibly detailed. It’s all wonderful to see.
Leone also skillfully uses music to set the scene and convey emotion. True to form, his melancholy theme music is hard at work in the movie, and it performs yeoman service. Now and then he trips up, however -- his trademark use of pan-flute solos is even weirder here than in the spaghetti westerns, and, to be frank, when the Beetles song “Yesterday” popped up at one point, I laughed out loud, so out of place was it, so cloyingly sentimental. For the most part, though, Leone’s characters are amazing to look at, set in vivid backgrounds and propelled forward by terrific music.
Unfortunately, the plot and the writing are terribly clumsy, and so the movie does not make it all the way to the status of a great film. It’s a bridge half built, which can be more frustrating than no bridge at all.
Actually, the movie’s premise is intriguing at first, and the fatuous dialogue doesn’t get in the way too much. Noodles has been driven out of New York and has lived in exile, hiding for more than 30 years until he receives a mysterious invitation to return to New York for an unknown reason. But the screenplay itself is a toxic brew of histrionics and adolescent bravado, with an almost comically-exaggerated sense of its own gravitas. It was clearly written by a staff of writers, and what’s even more clear is that all of them spoke English as a second language. The movie is reminiscent of a story written about adult life by a teenager -- it is not nearly as deep as it thinks it is.
Troopers all, the very talented actors weather the implausible situations and hokey dialogue as best they can. As the hours roll on (I watched the four-hour long “director’s version”), and the story marches toward its unsurprising conclusion, the viewer begins bracing for this with a mixture of dread and relief. At the end, the disappointment is all the more palpable because the cast, sets and cinematography are so good, and some of the initial scenes held great promise.
The fact that the movie is itself mostly about rough people is absolutely no excuse for any of this, as Martin Scorcese’s phenomenal Goodfellas readily proves. Likewise, the fact that the movie is set amidst a haze of opium at certain points is even less excuse for shoddy characterizations . The simple truth is that the moive is trite and makes little or no sense, long version or short.
Leone assembled an impressive cast of young talent to act out the story of Once Upon a Time in America. As mentioned, most of them try very hard to make the fatuous story float, and some — particularly Woods and Tuesday Weld as Max’s sometimes-moll — are terrific. DeNiro himself is strangely out of place and not terribly convincing as a Jewish gangster, although he is good in his scenes from the 1970's.
Elizabeth McGovern plays Deborah, Fat Moe’s sister. (A young Jennifer Connelly has several scenes playing Deborah as a girl, in which she is excellent. McGovern plays her as an adult). Deborah has been Noodles’ dream since childhood, and for this McGovern is appropriately cast — she is radiant in the movie, although, like DeNiro, Elizabeth McGovern does not exactly spring to mind when you think of first-generation Jewish immigrants.
As written, Deborah has less character than a cigar store Indian and there’s precious little wiggle room left for improvement. Deborah doesn’t flirt with the gangster life like her brother; she’s a dancer and actress, a straight arrow and neighborhood success story. For all that, and despite being disgusted by Noodles’ vulgarity and criminal behavior, Deborah has a passionate love for him that the movie chooses not to explain, other than the simple Hollywood arithmatic that since DeNiro is the lead, the most beautiful actress in the movie must be his love interest.
McGovern does what she can to bring some depth to Deborah, but she’s climbing Everest in Once Upon a Time in America. Deborah has some of the worst dialogue in a movie filled with bad dialogue.
Occasionally she has the rare chance to perform relatively unencumbered by the script, such as the moment when she first sees Noodles after his long imprisonment, or when she leaves on a train for Los Angeles. In these fleeting moments, you can almost sense McGovern’s realization that her only chance to make something of Deborah is when her mouth is shut.
Received opinion has it that Once Upon a Time in America is a great movie, possibly because it is a very long gangster movie (like those other ones), or because it was an epic work of passion for Leone, or because DeNiro is in it (again, like those other gangster movies), or maybe it’s a combination of those elements. But here, as is often the case, received opinion is mistaken. Once Upon a Time in America is a mess, though an often-beautiful one.