Class Action Park
2020, NR, 90 min. Directed by Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 4, 2020
Theme parks are about the pretense of danger. No matter how high you shoot, how far you fall, what darkness swallows you or rapids fling you, it's all a controlled thrill. Not in the case of Action Park, the legendary nexus of barely controlled chaos that defined summers in New Jersey from 1978 to 1996. Infamous for being designed by lunatics and run by kids, it was a rite of passage to go, hang out, crash into pools, maybe lose some skin from friction burns, and strip away the pretense of danger. This was the real deal, a water park set up by Wall Street penny trader vulture Eugene Mulvihill when he realized that he wasn't going to make real money off running a seasonal ski resort, and instead decided to get rich off unleashing a bunch of thrill-hungry teens on a bunch of rides and slides that would, over 18 years of operations, take a bunch of lives, with no one truly held accountable. Now Class Action Park (its title taken from one of the many, many nicknames it acquired over the years) takes the New Jersey legend nationwide.
Or rather, re-enforces its national status. Co-director Seth Porges tackled the subject seven years ago when he wrote a short doc about Traction Park, The Most Insane Amusement Park Ever", but he's far from the only person to reminisce with abject horror about the New Jersey hot spot. YouTube documentarian Kevin Perjurer covered much of the same material in an episode of his theme park history series, Defunctland (expect a lot of the same archive footage, plus John Hodgman's patented faux-academic delivery of the narration even evokes Perjurer's distinctive monotone), while Johnny Knoxville both fictionalized and romanticized the story in his battered comedy, Action Point.
The big addition for this full-length feature documentary (which played at Fantasia International Film Festival last weekend before arriving on HBO Max) is a whole bunch of interviews - which, 20 years ago, could have counted as legal testimony - about how insanely dangerous Action Park was. A mixture of attendees (with former patrons turned comedians Chris Gethard and Alison Becker the true MVPs), managers and life guards (a term that should be applied loosely at best), and journalists dismantle the myth of Action Park as the most dangerous of attractions, only to discover that there was more bone breaking, teeth dislodging, and clear criminal malfeasance than anyone really knew (Action Park: if sliding down a concrete chute on a go-kart with no brakes doesn't get you, then the lethal wave pool, the swimming pool straight under a diving ledge, or the 360-degree looping water slide designed in clear defiance of physics definitely will. And, in several tragic cases, did.)
Yet Porges (who also pops up as an expert talking head) and co-director Chris Charles Scott III never quite hit an even tone - or rather, there's a big divide, like bouncing along on a kiddy coaster that suddenly turns into a brutal corkscrew with a massive drop at the end. The first hour treats Accident Park like a childhood wonderland of irresponsibility before suddenly lurching into 60 Minutes expose. The animated hijinks and grainy '90s video footage gives way to the somber story of how one of those deaths has haunted the family of the dead kid. If these two halves were better integrated, maybe the ride wouldn't feel so jarring. It's rarely a good idea to make the audience feel like they're horrible people for laughing at the dangerous hijinks that were framed exactly as such. A closing coda that serves as an attack on the age of latch key kids seems particularly off-kilter, like Porgess and Scott want to make amends for their lighthearted flick about a very special moment of lunacy. Moreover, they start to drag in some very loose allegations, most especially about Mulvihill's mob connections, that seem like late additions, never quite keying in to the story as told.
Yet what a story. Even if Porges and Scott are a little late to their own party, and Action Park is no longer a local Garden State story, they still tell it with the requisite mix of sugar-powered slack-jawed wonderment and dropped-jaw bafflement.
Class Action Park is available now on HBO Max.