Once Upon a Time in America arrives as a disappointment of considerable proportions. Sprawling $32 million saga of Jewish gangsters over the decades is surprisingly deficient in clarity and purpose, as well as excitement and narrative involvement.
Pic opens with a series of extraordinary violent episodes. It’s 1933 and some hoods knock off a girlfriend and some cohorts of ‘Noodles’ (Robert De Niro), while trying to track down the man himself.
Then, action shifts to 1968, when the aging De Niro (superior makeup job) returns to New York after a 35-year absence and reunites with a childhood pal, Fat Moe (Larry Rapp). De Niro is clearly on a mission relating to his past, and his later discovery of a briefcase filled with loot for a contract is obviously a portent of something big to come.
Leone’s pattern of jumping between time periods isn’t at all confusing and does create some effective poetic echoes, but also seems arbitrary at times and, because of the long childhood section, forestalls the beginning of involvement.
Quiet and subtle throughout, De Niro and his charisma rep the backbone of the picture but, despite frequent threats to become engaging, Noodles remains essentially unpalatable.