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Class Action Park
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by Jay Seaver

"Hard to look away from this sort of insanity."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: New Jersey's infamous Action Park is the sort of thing that, decades later, defies belief - it seems like it almost has to be parody that is exaggerated a little too much. But, no, it was a real thing and the makers of the documentary seem almost as stunned as the audience, spending an hour and a half saying "can you believe this?" in shocked surprise and not having to do much else.

They do start by giving a little background, discussing how 1970s stockbroker Gene Mulvihill was looking for something new to do after being banned from Wall Street and purchased a pair of ski resorts in Vernon, New Jersey, but also wanted to make money off them in the summer, which led to building one of the country's first water parks, with mountain slides and go karts as well. As one might imagine, Mulvihill was not one who cared much for rules, so he pushed to make the tracks more thrilling (despite very few involved actually knowing much about engineering) and hired as few minimum-wage teenagers as he could possibly get away with - all while creating a fake off-shore insurance company and using it to launder money. Surprisingly, the place would stay open for twenty years.

There is probably a nifty movie - dramatic or documentary - to be made that focuses more on Mulvihill and maybe uses the dangerous rides and lax supervision as punctuation or subplots, but it's hard to blame directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III for going the other direction - there's much more footage to work with and it makes for eye-opening television. Much of it comes from the 1980s, so it's a combination of home movies and VHS footage, and they lean into it for the general look of the film - the animations have a crude and hand-drawn look rather than being sophisticated CGI renderings of how all the physics works, and even the captions that label the participants often look like something that may have come from the local news during that period. It's nostalgic for those who lived through the period, although not ostentatiously so. It's what they've got to work with and they run with it.

Of course, the footage itself shows that nostalgia is often insane, with a series of jaw-dropping clips of the park and memories from those who were there, the most famous of which is comedian Chris Gethard. They're all big New Jersey personalities, though, and twenty or thirty years older, just at the point where they can remember that period as the good old days with head-shaking amazement that they lived through it. A bit of a theme emerges - a lot of people aren't sure where the line should be between parental and government supervision on the one side and personal freedom on the other, but that it's probably a little west of this - but mostly people want to tell stories, darkly joke about how Action Park might be the most Jersey thing ever, and not quite apologize for any part they might have had. It's not set-up to show them watching the same clips as the audience and reacting, but has that free-wheeling feel.

The trouble, of course, is that the first death in Action Park happened in 1980, much closer to the start of operations than the end, and while it's not something Porges & Scott have hidden, they're well aware that presenting events in something like a chronological order would grind things to a halt early, and the very fact that they put it off to the end makes their intentions to manipulate the mood a little obvious. It's natural and fair, but makes one wonder a bit how this documentary will sit a second time through, when the fact that this fun is tainted hangs over it all the more.

But then, how many documentaries are really designed for rewatch value, even ones meant to be broadly entertaining the way this is? It's certainly a heck of a thing to watch once, even if things like the park aren't part of one's childhood memories.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33647&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/23/20 16:23:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Seth Porges
  Chris Charles Scott III

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  (documentary)



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