A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Once Upon a Time in America is an epic gangster movie, considered a classic, and in a league with the Godfather movies and GoodFellas. It has a complex structure, and it's a slow burn, but for mature viewers, it's a great piece of filmmaking. It contains extremely strong violence, including two disturbing scenes of rape, as well as many scenes of guns and shooting, stabbing, fighting, blood and death, and more. Full-frontal female nudity is shown as well as other female toplessness. Teen sex is an issue; young characters trade pastries for sex with a teen girl. Some sex talk, and sexual situations are quite strong. Language is also strong, though not constant, with uses of "f--k," "s--t," "a--hole," "c--k," and most other words under the sun. The main character frequents opium dens, and gets very drunk (and passes out) in one scene. Characters drink and smoke socially throughout. This review pertains to the most up-to-date, restored version, running 251 minutes.
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What's the story?
In ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has to get out of town. He goes by a train station locker to retrieve what he thinks is a suitcase full of money, but the money is gone. In flashback, Noodles is a boy on the streets of New York. He falls in love with the pretty Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) and meets his lifelong friends, Max, Cockeye, and Patsy, with whom he embarks upon a life of crime. After a tragic death he goes to prison; when he gets out, his gang has reached adulthood, and prospered through illegal booze during Prohibition. Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) continue to do business while Noodles tries to win back the grown-up Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). When Prohibition ends, Max begins to plan a big robbery. Noodles makes a hard choice, but years later, he receives a mysterious invitation. Who sent it, and wherever did the locker full of money go?
Is it any good?
Sergio Leone's final movie, in the works for a decade or more, is a true epic, a great, sprawling folly, filled with big and small moments, rage and regret, noise and quiet, pugnaciousness and poetry. Based on a novel by Harry Grey, Once Upon a Time in America was infamously chopped to pieces upon its original 1984 American release, and, after a disastrous reception, was restored to a 229-minute version by year's end. In 2012, it was further restored to 251 minutes (just a tad shy of Leone's preferred 269-minute version). The complex structure includes many flashbacks and flash-forwards as well as an opium-fueled sequence or two, so it requires strict attention.
Although it's punctuated with scenes of brutal violence, including two hard-to-watch rape scenes, the movie is an overall slow burn with many sequences so quiet and reflective that they could be dreams. Many of Leone's touches, such as his use of silence to delay violence, are still here, but more refined for the urban landscape. Ennio Morricone contributes a beautiful, melancholy score, led by a flute that Forsythe's character plays on-screen. The cast, also including Joe Pesci, Burt Young, and Treat Williams, is uniformly excellent. (Louise Fletcher appears exclusively in restored footage.) Once Upon a Time in America is an essential entry in the gangster genre, worthy of mention alongside the Godfather movies and GoodFellas.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Once Upon a Time in America's violence. How strong is it in relation to the story? Does it seem excessive? What effect does it have?
How is sex shown in the movie? Is it violent in nature, or loving?
What's the appeal of the gangster genre? Are gangsters role models in any way? What lessons are learned?
Is it easy or hard to watch a very long movie like this one? How different is it from watching a season of a television show?
- In theaters: June 1, 1984
- On DVD or streaming: January 9, 2002
- Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern
- Director: Sergio Leone
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 251 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong violence including a scene of rape, sexual content, language and some drug use