'Once Upon a Time in America' is an almost 4 hour long experience about the lives of four Jewish friends who grew up in the lower east side of New York in the 1920s. It focuses primarily on the life of David Aranson, better known as 'Noodles'. A spunky kid, with an awkward yet flamboyant personality, Noodles begins an unlikely friendship with Max Bercovitz, which leads him into a life of crime.
It's fair to say that this film is much more character-driven than it is action-driven. Each of the characters come alive as the story progresses from the 1920s to the 1930s and eventually to the late 1960s where the culmination of this lifelong drama occurs.
There are a number of very clear distinctions between this gangster movie and others of its genre. For one, it's not a very talkative film, relying rather on slow well-shot scenes and facial expressions to tell its story. The entire movie has a surreal dream-like quality to it, and is replete with symbolism and allegory. The soundtrack is great addition to the film, and the playing of John Lennon's "Yesterday" intermingled with the childhood flashbacks brought tears to my eyes.
Just to give an example of the great symbolism in this film, there's a scene which seems rather insignificant, but upon further contemplation one realizes its allegorical meaning. When young 'Patsy' brings the cream pie in return for a sexual favor from Peggy. As Patsy waits for Peggy to exit her apartment, he can't resist the temptation of the delicious cake, and begins picking at its sides, figuring she won't notice. Then eventually he eats the cherry, then goes on to greedily devour the entire delicacy, leaving him with nothing to offer Peggy. This symbolizes the lives of these men, who with a little patience and forbearing could have lived much more meaningful lives, but they could never withstand the temptation of instant gratification and pleasure, which ultimately was their downfall.
If I would have to use one word to describe this film though, it would be 'ambiguous'. Many scenes and lines can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. In fact, the meaning of many of its scenes have been widely debated over the years. Not the least of which being the opening and closing scenes of the movie in which Noodles is seen smoking in an opium den, prompting many to speculate that the entire movie, or all that happens from that point on, is an 'opium dream'.
Nothing is more ambiguous and ambivalent than the central character of 'Noodles', played masterfully by Robert DeNiro. He is awkward and clumsy, yet he is cool and quick-witted. He is calm and collected, yet extraordinarily passionate. He is cruel, yet compassionate. Tough, yet very tender.
One thing is for certain, to be able to watch this film and appreciate it properly one needs a lot of patience. Sergio Leone is notorious for his slow-paced movies, and this one tops it all. In fact, originally Leone wanted to release a 6 hour version, but was persuaded to cut it down to a 'mere' 3 hours and 47 minutes.