Once upon a time in Italy, Sergio Leone saved the Western genre. At the dawn of the Counter Culture movement, Hollywood Westerns were becoming old-fashioned, predictable, and bland.
Mr. Leone invited Clint Eastwood to Italy in 1964 and changed everything. Starting with “A Fistful of Dollars,” Leone’s Westerns were violent, moody art films for men rather than cowboy movies for boys.
Sergio Leone became so revered that he earned the right to make whatever movie he wanted with total artistic control.
The result was the four-hour epic disaster “Once Upon a Time in America.” “America” isn’t just bad; it is a monumental failure.
Leone tries to tell the story of four Jewish friends growing up in New York City in the early years of the 20th Century. The boys eagerly join the gangster underworld. They make it big during Prohibition – running a popular speakeasy and a classy brothel.
Two of the friends aren’t developed at all as characters. I don’t even remember their names.
If there is tension in the movie, it is the rivalry between Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods). Noodles is a conservative and hesitant businessman; Max likes to dream big and take risks.
We are supposed to believe that Max is an explosive criminal mastermind. But we don’t because he always acts like a childish hothead jerk.
The most preventable problem with “Once Upon a Time in America” is the amusing fact that none of the characters look or act even remotely Jewish. Hey, I get that Sergio Leone was born and raised in a country with approximately zero Jews. So … why didn’t he make a movie about Italian gangsters?
Apparently, Leone thinks that Jews are regular American tough guys who occasionally say “L’Chaim” and “tush.” The movie isn’t anti-Jew at all. It’s just funny that Mr. Leone seemingly knew nothing about Jews.
A more uncomfortable problem is Leone’s treatment of women. Oddly, almost every female character is single-mindedly sex crazed.
During a Detroit diamond heist, Noodles has semi-consensual sex with a married woman. A few scenes later, she is in New York working at the brothel. Did she like the rough treatment so much that she dropped everything to make a career out of it? It is never explained.
I don’t think “America” is necessary misogynistic. It’s just odd that Mr. Leone seemingly knew nothing about women.
Every hour or so, Noodles goes into an opium den to smoke himself comatose. And every time, I said to myself – “Oh, yeah. Noodles is some sort of junkie.” It’s easy to forget, because he never talks about drugs or acts high or indicates that he craves more opium.
Hey, everyone deals with their bad habits differently. But I couldn’t help but think that Mr. Leone seemingly knew nothing about addictive drugs.
Sometimes the very greatest directors make the most outrageously terrible films. That is certainly what happened here. Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” is arguably the finest Western ever made. And “Once Upon a Time in America” is the most overrated Gangster film.