Once Upon a Time in America
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