It can be hard for pop culture to balance comedy and drama. If not done well, you get tonal whiplash. A lot of times the drama and emotion feels unearned in films that have a comedic tilt to it. When you try and be both light and dark in the same film, it’s difficult. With a documentary, it’s even harder, because the dark stuff is real. The emotions are based in reality. When done poorly, the comedy can feel glib. It’s a tough needle to thread. I’ve been thinking about this because I just recently watched the 2020 documentary Class Action Park on HBO Max, and that’s a film that manages to balance all the complex emotions quite well.
I was familiar, anecdotally, with Action Park. Well, more than anecdotally. I read a lengthy article about it a couple years ago. I had seen the infamous waterslide that had an honest-to-god loop in it, which seems psychotic. Action Park has a long-lasting reputation of being a waterpark that was profoundly dangerous. People who grew up in the New Jersey era in the late ‘70s into the ‘80s tend to have memories of Action Park. It’s iconic, for better or worse. There’s a reason why a documentary was made about a waterpark in Vernon, New Jersey, after all.
The film, in addition to archival footage, features interviews with former employees, plus some parkgoers. Specifically, actors Chris Gethard and Alison Becker. John Hodgman provides the narration. A lot of the film has a “We can’t believe this happened” awe to it, but with a sense of frivolity. People shake their heads and laugh at memories of waterslides that would leave you with bruises and drunk adults driving go karts. I laughed, but I also recognized the seriousness of what they were talking about. To be fair, so did the makers of Class Action Park.
However, the film realizes when it needs to have gravity to it. I don’t want to go into too much detail, and it feels weird to call something like this a “spoiler,” but people died at Action Park. They died from negligence. Gene Mulvihill, the man who built the park, was a total scumbag. He was a stockbroker “greed is good” prick who got busted by the SEC and had to leave the Wall Street game. He decided to built a waterpark and do whatever the hell he wanted. I would bet he loved Ayn Rand. He definitely love the free market. Mulvihill would have likely said that everybody’s safety was their personal responsibility. That’s not true, though. When you own and operate a place like Action Park, you have a moral, and legal, responsibility to watch out for your clientele. Instead, Mulvihill had fake insurance and would drag out every lawsuit because he had the money to afford to do it. When he lost, which his lawyers rarely did, he would make you get the U.S. Marshals to come collect the money.
Class Action Park covers the whole gamut of Action Park. It recognizes the tragedy but allows space for nostalgia for a time when teenagers could do insane stuff without supervision. It all seems to coexist quite well. I laughed. I was made exceedingly sad. I got angry. It’s a very successful film, and it succeeds at doing something that is so tricky to pull off with non-fiction filmmaking.