Sergio Leone's 1984 crime drama Once Upon a Time in America has been made out to be the next great crime epic in the tradition of The Godfather. Only instead of following an Italian crime family like we did in the The Godfather movies, we follow a Jewish mafia for three decades. Given the praise critics and audiences have been bestowing upon this picture, I expected to be blown away by this. But sadly, I thought this film in the end was a huge, huge disappointment. Just like Scarface a year earlier, this is yet another ripoff of The Godfather that does nothing except demonstrate everything that is dull and lifeless about the crime film genre.
I have no idea how to sum up the story for this picture aside from saying that it's about five guys (Robert DeNiro, James Woods, James Hayden, William Forsythe, Larry Rapp) in the Jewish mafia and the events they undergo from the 1920's to the 1930's during the Prohibition era. The first problem I have with Once Upon a Time in America is the film's story being told in non-chronological order. I don't have a problem with films that use different storytelling methods as long as I'm able to have a basic idea of what's happening in the plot. If I can't understand the film's plot which is the case with this film, then how am I expected to get into the plot and care about the characters involved in it?
While I realize that this part of the picture is intended to show us how the characters came together, I thought the first hour or so of this nearly four hour picture really sucked mainly because I didn't care for the acting from the kids and teens playing the main characters. I just felt that the acting was too painful to sit through and the lines they were given were absolutely terrible.
Furthermore, I thought the film's sound editing and Ennio Morricone's soundtrack were incredibly annoying. During the first flashback Robert DeNiro's character has in this flick, the phone is ringing and it doesn't stop ringing for at least 10 MINUTES! Not only that, but the phone's also ringing IN THE FLASHBACK!! While I realize that it's doing something that hasn't been done before, it's still unbelievably obnoxious to listen to. Along with the soundtrack being extremely repetitive, there are also similar sound editing pet peeves that kept adding up to the point where I couldn't stand listening to this film.
The only positive aspects I could come up with in describing the quality of this film is that the acting by DeNiro and Woods are pretty good and that the production design of this film is authentic to the eras that the plot was set in. Aside from that, there isn't much else to say about this film except that it's a boring letdown. Along with the overly confusing and long story, the annoying soundtrack, and the lousy first quarter of the picture, I also found the ending to be similarly awful in that it closes on a very creepy and unnecessary freeze frame/close-up of DeNiro's face.
I realize that this film is considered to be one of Leone's finest films, I recognize that many critics and audiences highly endorse this flick, and I know it's considered one of the best of the crime genre. If you still enjoy this film, that's fine. I won't hold anything against you because you like it and I think it's great that you're happy with this film. After all, you're entitled to your opinion. In the end, Once Upon a Time in America just isn't my type of film and it didn't meet my expectations at all.