Class Action Park (2020)

Dir. Chris Charles Scott and Seth Porges

Directors of documentaries frequently look for ways to make sure that their words reinforce the images they’ve chosen for the screen, whether it’s by writing a narration or appearing in front of the camera. If you’re Michael Moore, at the far end of both qualities for intrusiveness, it might even work out pretty well for you. Roger & Me, as the title indicates, is as much a personal story as it is a story about Flint, and that’s no small amount of the brilliance in that picture. Class Action Park does something I’ve not seen much of before, though, and that’s to put one of the people with director credits in the talking head position. Watching Seth Porges get one of the last talking head spots in the movie after not seeing all that much of him throughout the picture is a distraction, and not least because his final appearance is a monologue which is meant to sum up what becomes the documentary’s major thrust. Porges, like some of the other interviewees (either former park employees or people with minor roles on Parks and Rec), leaves behind what’s most compelling about the actual story of Libertarian Land in favor of making some comment about generational angst. Someone says the term “latchkey kids” over the course of the documentary, and there are five-second clips from popular movies of the 1980s like The Goonies and E.T. dotted in there. The Generation X nostalgia would be unbearable if it didn’t fold itself in with some Jersey deprecation, which is probably at least as obnoxious but at least endearing in a ridiculous sort of way.

The film feints in three other directions before it swings totally towards the radically original thought of “Man, I wish I were eighteen again,” all of which would have been more effective. The first is about the water park from the ’70s and ’80s where there were no rules and people got hurt, but teens still flocked to its haywire rides like it was Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. (Apparently not a Gen X touchstone, that.) The second is about the societal implications of a park that could exist without rules or real insurance, and the conditions that allowed such a park to crop up in the first place. The third is about the deadly consequences of Action Park, where multiple people were killed in the attractions and yet the park persisted. Choosing this fourth angle to end the movie on is the most indulgent decision that Porges and his co-director, Chris Charles Scott, make, and it’s ultimately what makes this movie as much unsuccessful as not. The film had not introduced Esther Larsson yet the first time she appeared on screen, which occurs when there’s a hard cut from someone describing the relative charm of Gene Mulvihill to her pejorative, profane denouncement of him. It’s a funny cut. It gets significantly less funny for those of us without goldfish memories once we learn that her nineteen-year-old son was the first person killed by a ride at Action Park, and even less funny when we find out that Mulvihill and company did not report that death to the state, relying instead on fraudulent claims (it was raining, it was dark and after hours, and George was an employee) to try to shift the blame. There’s an interesting comment in here about how our nostalgia for ugly things reveals something a little ugly about ourselves, but Class Action Park can’t navigate that path any more than patrons of that park could navigate some of those rides.

It’s too bad that they chose the path they did, because a brainless 75-minute documentary (or an overlong at 110 minutes coming-of-age story set in Sussex County, featuring a couple of white male outsiders on the Sunday before Labor Day 1982 who just want to have a great time and chase a cheerleader with big hair) might have been the way to go here. A little more than half the doc is spent detailing a seemingly endless number of rides and attractions, all of which had some serious flaw or some track record of injuring people. The Cannonball Loop is a great place to start, because it appears to have literally been planned out on a napkin and was tested on willing employee at one hundred bucks a ride. I don’t know how much we can credit the story of teeth being stuck in the tube and cutting unwary riders on the way down, but at the same time, if it’s an urban legend there’s some grain of truth in the ridiculous nature of a ride that hates physics that much. There are other rides that get some uncomfortable laughter because of how ridiculous they were. The speedboats, on their oil-slick pond that would occasionally fling drunk drivers into said pond filled with snakes, got such a laugh from me. So did the cliff dive where people could, to borrow from interviewee Chris Gethard, basically mimic their own suicides from twenty feet up but then have people land on them from said distance if they didn’t move fast enough. I got halfway homesick listening to the descriptions of the Tarzan swing: people rode the swing, jumped into freezing cold water, and then had to orient themselves to get out while disapproving future swingers would yell “PUSSY” at them for not making a successful jump. That stuff is genuinely pretty amusing, and for what the filmmakers want to do there is just entirely too much of it. (It’s hard to overstate just how many of these rides and attractions there were; I watched this with my wife, and at one point, she said “How many of these rides are there?” at the same time I was thinking it.) I don’t think it works as an advertisement for the park, but it definitely gives the place a “one crazy night” vibe that is maybe a little more charismatic than Action Park deserves, sort of a like an O.J. Simpson documentary that spends as much time on the Hertz commercials or Naked Gun role as it did on the murder trial.

One interviewee, Internet archivist Jason Scott, practically makes it easy on the filmmakers, so easy that they may have been a little too dense to take full advantage of his kindness. The point of an amusement park, Scott says, is that people feel like they are in danger while, barring some act of God, they are still perfectly safe. Action Park, with its broken rides and its harebrained design and its teenage staff, was not actually safe. It was a place where even before people died, folks would take not insignificant injuries. If Action Park had been founded by some entrepreneur with a latent death wish, then maybe the obvious metaphor would have been a little grandiose, but given that Gene Mulvihill was an ex-Wall Street manager who had been pushed out pleading guilty to numerous counts, the “Action Park is what happens when capitalism runs amok” angle seems giftwrapped. And to be sure, Class Action Park does some gesturing, with its B-roll clips of Ronald Reagan and its references to corporate sprawl. Still it never really gets into what that means in terms of economics rather than society. The laissez-faire approach to corporate oversight gets the pat appreciation that Stand by Me gets, for example, rather than becoming the most effective way into the material.

All in all this is an entertaining movie, but what’s personally most interesting to me about Class Action Park is how it is a textbook example of trying to judge the movie you have in front of you rather than the movie you wish you could have seen instead. In that estimation, Class Action Park is jumbled and misplayed in multiple ways, maybe a little better suited to YouTube than HBO Max.

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