Directed by: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III. Starring: Chris Gethard, Alison Becker, Johnny Knoxville. Runtime: 89 min. Released: August 22, 2020 (Fantasia Film Fest).
I am not the adventurous type. I don’t like roller coasters because I’d always be spooked of the cart going off the track. With that said, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the 1980’s in New Jersey because I would have been too spooked to go on any of the rides seen in the documentary Class Action Park, about the dangerous amusement park Action Park, which attracted tourists to the town of Vernon, New Jersey throughout the 1980’s.
With the talking heads that we get throughout, it’s obvious that if anyone would have been in line and not gone on a ride, the patrons would not have been kind about one of the famous park attendees Alison Becker (Parks and Recreation) recalls about the Tarzan Swing. “F#&king p^#sy, just do it. This is Jersey.” The nostalgia here feels real for anyone who grew up in the 1980’s, but even for someone like me who grew up in the mid-1990’s in Canada, the stories they tell transport you back to this magical place where everyone drank, was careless and free, and battle scars from Action Park were a point of pride. I wouldn’t be brave enough (perhaps that makes me smart) to go on any of these rides, but it is such a joy to live vicariously through these attendees about their experiences at Action Park.
Comedian Chris Gethard is a main talking head here and he describes getting your scars at Action Park as a rite of passage, which becomes clear. If anyone showed up with an injury at school, everyone assumes they went to Action Park. Gethard is a familiar face in comedies like The Other Guys and Don’t Think Twice, but him playing himself is his best role as his stories quickly become a highlight throughout because he truly is funny.
This documentary directed by Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III truly captures what it was like to be here in the 1980’s unlike the Johnny Knoxville vehicle from 2018, Action Point, which just felt like such a missed opportunity. This film paints such a clear picture of the freedom and debauchery that went on, as the park was mainly operated that teenagers who should be at least 16 years old, but some 14 year-olds snuck in as employees. Suffice to say, this is not a safe park. The directors’ style for Class Action Park works so well with the archive footage and interviews, as well as the use of animation to re-enact some stories, like when the owner of the park Gene Mulvihill, affectionately called “Uncle Gene” by the employees, would give one hundred dollars to anyone willing to test out the Cannonball Loop, one of the park’s most dangerous rides.
As well as being a reflection of how fun this park is, the film’s a portrait of its owner Gene Mulvihill, as it tells us about his trouble with finances, his crazy ideas for rides and how he made certain ones more extreme, and of course, the amount of time he’s been sued because of the injuries.
He was a polarizing figure as we learn in one of the film’s funniest moments as an employee says “he was a cool dude” and it immediately switches to a woman saying “I think he was a piece of shit.” As the film shifts more into a portrait of how Class Action Park affected people in the tail end of the film, it becomes somber. It doesn’t hurt the pacing, only saying that the fun of games are over and we have to discuss what was serious about Action Park.
It also becomes very emotional as one family tells their story about how Action Park affected their family, and I wasn’t expecting to cry this hard during this film. Mulvihill is depicted as a hero who gave kids freedom in his Lord of the Flies-esque amusement park; as well as painted as a villain who didn’t care about the families he affected. The film let’s you make up your own mind, merely delivering the facts, the sign of a great documentary, and one that’s hilarious, to boot.