Once Upon a Time in America
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Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Once Upon a Time in America
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A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the Lower East Side of Manhattan over thirty years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.

Release Date:February 16, 1984
Runtime:
MPAA Rating:R
Genres:Drama, Crime
Production Company:Warner Bros., The Ladd Company
Production Countries:United States of America, Italy
Director:Sergio Leone
Writers:, , , , , , ,
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Plot Keywords:life and death, corruption, street gang, rape, sadistic, lovesickness, sexual abuse, money laundering, opium
  • An unnecessarily padded and ersatz schlep of a film.
    July 27, 2003

    It is high time that American critics and fans alike start to debunk their unquestioned, sloppy veneration of films like Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America'. The checkered history of this opulent film (and the grand, fanciful myth associated with it's production and many versions) belies its mediocrity on a narrative level. The film lurches backward and forward in fits and starts, its central figures adrift and seemingly out of place surrounded by the ersatz decadence of towering sets, the minutia of production detail and the, by 1984, cliche'd but gorgeous cinematographic confection on offer to the audience. The plot's time frame is confusing, gimmicky and laboured, leading some critics to imagine the Noodles figure's opium binging to be the antecedent of some future 'dream reality' as well as the sepia-toned remembrances. This ham handed, overly fan boy-apologetic interpretation glosses over the glaring narrative irregularities on display. Even at this full (?) running time, figures appear and disappear with alarming suddenness: the Deborah character is fleetingly established in child form, a cold and unattainable 'trophy' female, not even hinting at the gravity with which she will re-establish her relationship with a post-prison Noodles, the said re-union henceforth rings completely false. The deadening pace is somewhat to blame, certain sequences drag along stagnantly for far too long, signifying very little, hinting at a director with so little restraint and narrative economy that he often feels obligated to usurp every iota of screen time possible in order to show off his production, fatal for a film that contains figures so sullen and aloof. The trajectory of the figures' lives is presented to us as a microcosm mirroring the historical trajectory of America's teens through prohibition and its spoils, ending with the (arguable) ruin of its moribund central figures (save Deborah- a make up department fumble or intentional one wonders). This notion is commonplace, even banal. The cast of characters as imagined in the one note script (written by seven Italians no less) are flatly and awkwardly played by all but the younger actors, who at least venture a few variant facial expressions. This is understandable given the almost unworkable material. Some critics state that the characters may seem so impenetrably self-absorbed, but actively seek their own goals, assuming the compliance of others (e.g. when Noodles gets out of prison, Max picks him up and offers him a hooker without asking him whether or not this is what he desires and later makes deals assuming Noodles will comply). This explanation of their abrupt, abrasive dispositions is unsatisfactorily extraneous and merely serves to highlight the complicated ends the films unwavering supporters will go to to defend their positions regarding a film unfortunately short on sense. Although Ennio Morricone's score is much revered, it is undeniably schmaltzy and repetitive, it gushes with an emotional redolence that the scenes themselves, many violent, just do not warrant. At points it is questionable whether or not Morricone was watching the same film I was so incongruous is his work. As a paean to American Filmmaking, it succeeds in terms of mood (helped by a few strokes of masterful editing segueing between time periods) and visuals (not helped by said score) but lacks narrative cohesion and fluidity.