Once Upon a Time in America

Sergio Leone

3/10 (too long; story/characters make no sense; gratuitous misogyny; just not good)

GOOD LORD this movie is over-rated! People actually rank this up with the “Godfather”s and “Goodfellas”? With echoes of these accolades rattling around my skull, I felt like I was watching an alternate-universe version that sucked. But then I realized that the actual movie in our universe sucks, and it must be that an overwhelming amount of people think that being over three and a half hours and starring Robert Deniro automatically and magically transforms a steaming pile into a classic. Like some sort of asinine alchemy I guess.

I’ll start with the good parts. Scene-for-scene this is a very watchable film, and it doesn’t feel as godawful long as it actually is. The youth scenes are much more interesting than either of the other eras, and I feel like this could have been a good movie just focusing on the kids, and maybe ending up in young adulthood. But sprawling over sixty years and spending an absurd amount of time in each era really does an injustice to the earliest part of the film. The fact that a 40-year-old DeNiro was playing a twenty-something young man for a good bulk of the film, though absurd, is only a minor complaint compared to the rest of the problems I have with the movie. Another minor complaint would be that DeNiro, though I respect him as an actor, has got to be the least romantic man alive. Whenever I see him “chatting up” a lady in one of the movies, I wonder how on god’s green earth such a man could ever score. He doesn’t even seem interested in them while he’s talking to them! Watching him kiss is another level of pain altogether.

I have two major complaints, and they are both deal-breakers. I’ll start with the one that doesn’t directly effect how well-executed the movie was as a whole: the misogyny. I was astounded watching the way that the women are routinely treated in this film. I thought the 1980s were rather enlightened in that respect, as far as movie-making climates go, but I guess I was wrong. There is no strong female character that’s not a whore, there are two rapes, and innumerable slaps to different regions of the body. They´re talked to like they´re worse than dogshit. I fully recognize the possibility that many women were actually treated like this in the beginning of the twentieth century (even though I doubt it), but I don’t believe that there were no exceptions, as there appear not to be in this movie. Let me put it another way: I think the level of misogyny in this film says more about Sergio Leone than it does about early 20th century New York.

My tipping point came with DeNiro´s rape of his childhood sweetheart, the supposed love of his life. Ignoring the incredible fact that HE RAPES THE WOMAN HE HAS LOVED FOR TWENTY YEARS, the scene itself was completely gratuitous, lasting way longer than necessary. And the fact that he raped her in the back seat of a limousine with the choffeur watching strains the limits of my credibility even further. I guess we’re meant to believe that rape just happened all the time back then, and nobody did anything to stop it. My shock was compounded when Noodles went to see her off at the train station the next day, because he felt bad. WTF??!! Do people really do that? Am I just that prude? I guess what I’m trying to say is that these characters were not believeable in the least. I don’t believe that people really act that way. I think Leone made it up to shock us. Bad writing and directing. If a director forsakes truth (s)he has nothing.

The problem with believability continued toward the end (spoilers), when DeNiro finds out that his sweetheart eventually married his best friend Max, another gangster, who has secretly been alive for 30+ years after faking his own death. (If you can’t follow that last sentence I wouldn’t worry too much, it’s only a little more clear in the actual movie.) This is the same girl who would have nothing to do with DeNiro, who she loved, because he was a gangster. The same girl who despised Max, but then decided to marry him and bear his child. How does this make sense to anyone? When you include the fact that they completely toss in this “Max going insane” red herring out of nowhere, and that it eventually means nothing, you end up with an interesting concoction — although it smells suspiciously like feces of some sort.

In short, this is a terrible movie. If I had to guess, I would say that people automatically liked it against their better judgment because of the two reasons listed in the first paragraph, plus the fact that it came from the same man responsible for such excellent cinema as the “Man With No Name” trilogy and “Once Upon a Time in the West,” four of the best westerns ever. Make no mistake: Leone was not able to work the same magic with this film.

I welcome any attempts at rebuttals, but I can’t promise that I will be able to get into an intricate discussion of the details of the movie, because (mercifully) it’s already fading from memory. And I can firmly guarantee the world that I will never see it again.

17 March 2010

Other Reviews for “Once”


17 Responses to “Once Upon a Time in America”

  1. anthony c Says:

    good review. This movie was waaaay over rated.

  2. Harmonica Says:

    I agree with you.I tried to like it but theres nothing to like! Leone’s other films are fantastic! Leone doing gangsters is a fail, they just rape and kill , who cares? Where’s Tuco and Angel Eyes? Characters with heart?

  3. Nailed it on the head, this movie sucked ass waaaaaaay bad. Glad someone out there agrees I was astonished at what good reviews the movie recieved. This movie needs to get bent over and RAPED!

  4. Agreed. I bought this movie because of all the hype I’ve heard.
    The acting was terrible, no character development and horrible writing.
    Not one believable thing about this film. The whole time you’re aware it’s a movie. James Wood as a gangster?! He’s so skinny in this I could not buy him as a tough guy. And the names, Noodles, Bugsy wtf! How cliche.
    Just a terrible movie

  5. I’m not too bothered by your review, since you admit up front on your main page that you don’t know anything about film, have barely studied film, and take a very layman viewing attitude towards your reviews.

    Nothing wrong with that I suppose. If it doesn’t reach Joe Six-Pack then who really cares, right? Kind of an ironic perspective since you mention a few sentences later how much you hate Michael Bay and his giant explosions.

    Actors play characters half their age ALL THE TIME. If this is shocking to you maybe you should come back and start writing reviews when you’ve graduated high school.

    Yeah, De Niro is not a very romantic person. The character he was playing is not romantic either. So what? What does that have to do with anything? That’s the character, and that’s how the movie was written.

    Yes, it’s generally agreed upon the youth scenes are better and the movie is long. If that bothers you, watch it in 90 minute increments and pretend it’s a TV series.

    Deborah is an important female character and I’m pretty sure her occupation is not prostitution, but hey whatever. That doesn’t fit with your narrative so who cares, right?

    Elephant time: He has been emotionally destroyed by someone he loves and doesn’t know what what to do with himself. He wants to hurt her as badly as she has hurt him. YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO LIKE HIM AT THIS POINT OF THE MOVIE. Maybe not at any point in the movie. The general public has been snookered into this idea that the protagonist must always be a good guy and a paragon of truth/justice/moral whatever and this is not true and should never true.

    The scene was long to drive home the sheer brutality of it and EMPHASIZE that there is no glorification of the content and it is a very very very very bad thing. There is no celebration whatsoever here. If that went over your head I’m not sure what to say.

    The chauffeur “ignoring” the rape is not that far fetched. Have you ever seen someone robbed in broad daylight? Ever see a bank robbery or a bar fight that you didn’t get involved in because it’s “not your problem”? Everyone likes to pretend they would be Superman if this happened but the truth is these kinds of things entering into our everyday lives is usually so shocking people freeze up and do nothing. Plus, you know, he’s trying to drive and can’t really tell what’s going on there without stopping and checking it out. Cabbies/Chauffeurs/Whatevers are usually self-trained to ignore all but the most ridiculous disturbances in their back seat because ruckus is not that unusual, feelings of station and place, etc etc.

    At least he didn’t take the money afterwards, showing he was disgusted at what he discovered when he opened the back passenger door. In your version I’m sure the chauffeur would be a knight in shining armor and save the day and kill Robert De Niro and then the film would immediately roll credits to save being too long because gosh darnit you have to get home and water your plants or whatever important things you have to do with your life.

    Yes, sometimes people do bad things and have regrets about it afterwards. They may do awkward things for the purpose of genuinely making up for it. If that’s SHOCKING to you, I guess you need to grow up a bit and get outside once in a while.

    I thought it was evident that Max and Carol had some basic chemistry throughout the movie. Just another example of you probably not paying attention.

    Basically, your observations are somewhat honest but I have a feeling you were negative towards the director, movie, and subject matter from the very beginning. I guess you should stick with feel good rom-coms instead.

    Sorry that every film isn’t mandated to be set in modern day San Fransisco or whatever strange standard you seem to absolutely expect. I guess movies set before 2004 are off limits to you because they are not “enlightened” enough. This film is definitely not for everyone and obviously not for you, and that’s fine. Please at least try to be intellectually honest before you trash it without any critical thinking.

    Also you gave Requiem for a Dream, which is basically a modern day Reefer Madness, a 10/10. That whole article was hilarious and one of the better laughs I’ve had in a while, so thanks for that at least. After taking all that in I can’t feel too bothered by your hack job here.

    • A) Do you like Michael Bay explosions?

      B) I am aware that actors play characters younger than themselves a lot. Rarely have I seen such an egregious casting choice as this one.

      C) My point about DeNiro is that he is unromantic in ALL of his movies (“Heat” is another prime example). He is unromantic, meaning he can’t credibly play a romantic character. That is one of the limits to his acting. That means that whether or not Noodles is supposed to be unromantic as well is immaterial, because when I see a character played by DeNiro chatting up or kissing a lady onscreen, I only see DeNiro. It takes me out of the movie. It is distracting. That was my only point.

      D) I didn’t say there were no “important” female characters. I said there were no “strong” female characters. Do you consider Deborah to be strong? Someone who appears to be independent and take a stand against organized crime only to eventually marry and bear the child of a gangster? I guess we just differ there.

      E) If you’re trying to argue that we’re not supposed to sympathize with Noodles throughout the movie, I don’t know if we should continue to even discuss this film because we’re pretty much talking two different languages. In any story you have to be able to sympathize at least a little bit with the protagonist, otherwise you have no reason to care about anything you’re seeing, i.e. the movie becomes heartless and soulless. If you disagree, name me some good movies that have completely unlikeable protagonists.

      F) Re: Max/Deborah’s chemistry. You said “Carol” but I assume you meant “Deborah.” It’s either evidence of me not paying attention or evidence of bad story-telling by the writer/director.

      G) As far as being negative toward the movie/director/subject to begin with, did you read the part where I loved Leone’s four previous films and was excited to see this one, or where I offered praise for the “Godfathers” and “Goodfellas”? Maybe the difference between you and me is that I don’t automatically fawn over a film just because of an impressive pedigree.

      H) Did you check out my list of 9’s and 10’s? How many films before and after 2004 are on those lists?

      I) What, specifically, did you not like about “Requiem”?

      J) Do you like Michael Bay explosions?

      K) To paraphrase you: “This (review) is definitely not for everyone and obviously not for you, and that’s fine. Please at least try to be intellectually honest before you trash (me) without any critical thinking.”

      Not sure what your personal problem is with me, but your criticisms would have been much more effective without the ad hominem attacks. And btw, just because I have no formal training in film critique, it doesn’t make me brain-dead. Maybe you should try thinking outside of the box every now and then.

      But I do appreciate you offering a dissenting opinion. I now have one person who disagrees with this review to accompany the 4 people who also disliked the movie, on what has become my most popular review. So unfortunately you are outnumbered by idiots here. Trust me though, I know the feeling well after “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.”

  6. Not every film has to feature a “strong” woman who has to take a stand, why, because that’s not how it is in real life. Just because there were some exceptions, they don’t have to be in every movie! Even though we don’t get to know a lot about Deborah, she is a complex female character, she is ambitious and successful. Why she marries Max, we don’t know exactly and we can’t say, but the movie establishes a connection in subtext even in the adolescent scenes. She felt something for Noodles too, even though he was a gangster. Watch the scene before Max and Noodles get beaten up, it is obvious that the director wanted to establish a spark between Deb and Max. Maybe she was hiding her attraction to Max, she liked Noodles more. Also, she knows Noodles does petty crimes when she kissed him in the youth scenes. Noodles is not unromantic! He does a lot of romantic things! It is because he feels betrayed and is desperate for Deborah that he rapes her. Is he a likable character, no. There are very few likable characters in the movie. Noodles was played brilliantly by DeNiro, you need to chuck the cliched image of romance. Also, you will feel some sympathy for Noodles if you think about it, he sticks firmly to the ethics he has, he is intelligent, ambitious and loyal, had a rough childhood and not much education. The movie is anything but heartless, the style is detached, but it has a lot of heart. Just because a film portrays misogynistic characters, doesn’t mean it is misogynistic. The refusal of the chauffeur to accept money and his expressions are enough to tell you what the director feels about Noodles and wants you to feel about him, director sympathizes with Deb and Noodles in that scene and the ones after that. Also, Noodles didn’t go to see her only because he felt bad, he loved her! Also, the chauffeur not doing anything while the Deb was being raped, he must have had some hints about the power Noodles had, a lot of people like to live and don’t do the moral thing to do. Also, what could he have done? Killed Noodles? He would have ended up dead if he laid even a single hand on him. You need to rewatch this movie, it is great. Deborah’s feelings for Noodles are clear even after 30 years, she doesn’t want him to get hurt, even though he raped her. She kissed him first! But she wanted it to stop there, which Noodles didn’t want! Also, watch DeNiro as older LaMotta in Raging Bull, he is a charmer. You are highly misguided in your opinions.

    • As to the romance question, see my letter “C” in my reply to the previous commenter. As to “Raging Bull,” I’ve seen it and loved it, and while DeNiro is many things in that movie, most of them superlative, he is still not romantic. Again it’s only my personal opinion on DeNiro. I think he’s a great actor, but watching him try to be seductive is embarrassing.

      • What is romantic, here is Noodles doing romantic things for her but you don’t think he is romantic, because he doesn’t fit the stereotype romantic man. I mentioned DeNiro being a charmer because you wrote- ” Whenever I see him “chatting up” a lady in one of the movies, I wonder how on god’s green earth such a man could ever score. He doesn’t even seem interested in them while he’s talking to them! Watching him kiss is another level of pain altogether.”
        Really, you don’t think women will go out with older LaMotta in Raging Bull? I am sure if motivated DeNiro can play the typical romantic hero, he is one of the greatest actors ever.

  7. which version you watched? american or original version? there is much difference! the original version, mounted by leone, is amazing! great film!

    the american version has ruined the movie!

  8. I agree with your review. Although it personally disgusted me, there were some glimmers of hope that it would live up to expectations. Unfortunately just not my expectations.

  9. the reason why she loved Noodles isn’t because he was a gangster. Love is blind.
    The other thing you forgot is that these people are gangsters and they are violent people. That’s how some gangsters are. They do unbelievable things but that was just their way of life.
    Also there is a theory that the whole movie might have just been Noodles getting high in opium.
    Also, many people didn’t like tge childhood scenes as the teenagers were just assholes. not the grown up versions arent assholes.
    Even though this movie is one of my favourite movies of all time, I definitely agree that there aren’t likable characters in the movie.

  10. I’m afraid I have to agree with the reviewer. This film is totally overblown, and the scenes are way too long (and I’m NOT a fan of modern fast cutting either), the plot is slow, almost everything is cliched (yes even the names. They must have spent all of five minutes coming up those), large parts of the plot is nonsensical (or maybe it was so slow I couldn’t be bothered to keep up), and music is used terribly, over-sentimentalising scenes that aren’t even remotely sentimental. Yes, and that rape scene. Just plain gratuitous.

    I know Leone is one of the greats, but this film is not one of his. Whatever point he was trying to make with this movie is just lost in the utter tedium of it all. I have a terrible feeling that he had started to believe his own hype and was incapable of seeing just how much this movie sucked.

    As for De Niro…. he must have sleepwalked through the entire thing. Or maybe he was on opium.

    Some beautiful photography though – full marks for that!

  11. John Smith Says:

    I’d agree mostly with the review but the biggest problem I had with the film is that there’s no symmetry between the false version of events we learn from Noodle’s perspective and the version we are left with at the end when we meet “Christopher Bailey” and he tells us the truth.

    From Noodle’s perspective we learn that Max(who is apparently a bit crazy even though nothing in the first two thirds of the film made any indication of that) wants to go on a suicide run to rob the Federal reserve bank. Then in an attempt to save Max, his girlfriend, Carol, proposes to Noodles the idea of setting him up to go to prison instead. So Noodles makes an anonymous call to the police who show up and end up killing Max, Patsy and Cockeye instead. A grief stricken Noodles then has to go on the run from assassins sent by no one in particular. He also learns the gangs money which is still kept in the same safe as when they were kids even though their supposed to be big shots has been stolen. He then goes into hiding for 30 years until he gets the invitation blah blah blah.

    But what actually happened is Max wanted Noodles to call the police on him so he could put his masterplan into play. That consisted of murdering all his friends, faking his death, stealing all their money, moving to San Francisco, becoming this mysterious Great Gatsbish Senator Baily character and marrying Deborah who had already left and gone to Hollywood.

    This is described as a “syndicate operation” referring to some faceless, nameless, powerful people who were Max’s co-conspirators in the scheme, along with all of the police and Carol and Deborah. They are all in on it and they were all able to keep the secret that senator Bailey is in fact a cold blooded gangster from Brooklyn.

    Why would “the syndicate” go to all the bother to cover up Max’s shady past when they could have just installed someone without a shady as “Bailey”

    Why would Max do it in the first place???

    Because he strived for legitimacy?
    no it was made pretty clear that Max wasn’t interested in going legitimate.

    Because he was greedy and he wanted the gangs money????
    The movie seemed to indicate the exact opposite of that about Max the entire way through the movie.(making Noodles an equal partner when he got out of jail, on a number of occasions they show Max going out of his way to give Noodles his cut from various jobs)

    Because he was secretly in love with Deborah and wanted Noodles out of the way???

    No that doesn’t make sense either. Noodle was out of the way for 12 years when he was in prison and they didn’t really indicate that at the end even though you might argue that Max’s stance on Noodles and Deborah’s relationship throughout the film was a bit weird.

    So not only is the whole Senator Bailey conspiracy completely implausible it contradicts almost everything we’re supposed to have learned about the characters up to that point. Especially Max and Deborah who are the only other proper characters after Noodles(ye could make an argument for the Moe “Fats” character who is also Deborah’s brother which makes the ending even more far fetched)

    So yes it does become a stupid film, everything that came after the introduction of Max being crazy and wanting to rob the federal reserve bank was idiotic, They could have thought of a much more interesting way of saying the exact same thing that didn’t totally contradict all the stories characters and make the audience spend a huge amount of time outside of the settings that were actually interesting such as the old Jewish neighborhood they grow up in or they glitzy prohibition era stuff all of 1960s stuff was dull and unnecessary.

    Few other things I hated(some were already mentioned):
    1. The stupid names (Noodles, Cockeye etc.)
    2. The bad casting James Woods, and the two other actors that play the grown up Patsy and Cockeye were totally unconvincing as gangsters.
    3. The bad makeup used to make De Niro, James Woods and the rest look old was an annoying distraction.
    4. aaaaaaaaaaaand this is just a stupid one, but the fact that Burt Young’s character’s “Cock insurance” story is actually supposed to be true… because thats how the find out about the diamonds blah blah blah..
    Theres too much stupid shit in this movie.

  12. I recently watched this movie and tend to agree with the review. The characters were just really, REALLY unlikeable (at best), to the point that I couldn’t even feel a hint of sadness for the little boy hoodlum Dominic when he got shot in the street. (Was I supposed to feel bad for him?)

    The score and cinematography were so top notch, however, that they compensated and made the viewing experience relatively pleasant.

  13. Once Upon a Time in America is an absolute masterwork of cinema; it is art in motion. A surreal and dreamlike cinematic experience, full of ingredients that make it the supreme epic that it is, including love, friendship, loyalty, betrayal, the passage of time and the mystery of memory.

    I created a video tribute to this film which features Scott Tiler Schutzman (who played “Young Noodles”), it’s an interesting promo worth checking out for those who appreciate, understand and value this magnificent film:

    Noodles, I slipped…

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