something of a long con by many of its talking heads, at one point it’s compared to the notorious Fyre Festival, the elite music gathering that turned out to be an island-based 

hall of smoke and mirrors designed by the grifting, baby-cheeked opportunist Billy McFarland. But I’m not sure that invoking con artistry when describing Action Park, just like one of the documentary’s speakers, comedian Chris Gethard, points out, is all that accurate. Because this park, which saw the peak of its popularity in the 1980s, was infamous for being unusually dangerous. In that regard, it delivered what it promised.

 

Much of the appeal for many was narrowly escaping injury 

testing out one of its precariously constructed offerings. One Action Park water slide climaxed in a loop-de-loop reminiscent of the circular California Screamin’ at Disneyland’s California Adventure Park. People often got stuck; it wasn't uncommon to exit bleeding. An innertube ride was designed to mimic an expanse of rushing rapids, which is to say that a trip down might lead to injuries and that nothing was monitored by attentive lifeguards. A mere description of any of the attractions at Action Park is a cause for alarm; wait until you hear in the documentary that its egomaniacal, amoral, eagerly boundary-pushing owner Gene Mulvihill often had prospective rides tested out by teenagers really wanting to make $100 in a couple of minutes. To avoid having to pay expensive insurance premiums once the park went from an idea to a nightmarish reality, Mulvihill made up an insurance company based in the Cayman Islands and "insured" himself, explaining how the park was allowed to operate for as long as it did despite its flagrant danger. 

 

Class Action Park is a mostly unremarkable documentary. It spends most of its length simply leapfrogging from ride to ride, going into detail about its various ethical problems and incorporating either darkly humorous or deeply pained anecdotes from former patrons and employees. Somewhat of an overview of the late Mulvihill is given, but the patently morally cockeyed founder is not given the loopy Tiger King (2020) treatment. This documentary is less inclined to explore a character's quirks and how they harmonized with their sins and more so the harm they caused. Class Action Park is a straightforward kind of horror movie that falls under the category of a horror movie whose events would not have happened if they had happened during the era of the cell phone, when its wrongs could be more widely disseminated, as pointed out by comedian Ayo Edibiri. 

 

One worries early on that the documentary will have an off-putting glibness to it. The descriptions of and stories about the rides are the majority of the time remembered with ticklish bemusement from interviewees; they are often accompanied by reenactments by juvenile illustrations that aren't entirely averse to showing us a stick figure with Xs for eyes. But the last act of the movie more or less effectively grapples with the toll of this park’s ubiquitous hazardousness, with much time spent interviewing the mother of a teenage guest who died after flying off the park's alpine slide. (In total, six people died at Action Park.) And it’s made very clear that Mulvihill didn’t think twice about his special brand of death capitalism; he's never rendered comedically. He was well aware that his financially booming creation was actively putting people in danger but cared little about that reality. Mulvihill was a real-life counterpart to the mayor of Amity Island. There’s a fine line between con artistry and uncomplicated malice and greed. How might Mulvihill defend himself if he was still standing?

 

The Burnt Orange HeresyB

Class Action ParkB

I

want to say that Action Park, the infamous New Jersey attraction focused on in the new HBO Max documentary Class Action Park (2020), is just as steeped in deception as a movie like The Burnt Orange Heresy. Considered

there contains within it even a single note of bad faith. With a politician's confidence, James tells his audience a long story about the painting, which looks hasty and largely unimpressive to a cursory look. By giving it more context, though, his audience gradually moves from unanimously uninterested to enraptured. When asked, every member raises their hand for a print after having heard the full story behind it.

 

James then operatically reveals that the story he’s told is fake, and that the painting wasn’t done by some lost master. He did it himself, a little before setting up shop in this hall. Later, we find out that even that reveal isn’t true, which sums up so much of the course of this movie: narratively it’s reliant on mind games that have another layer of deceit sitting under them. The Burnt Orange Heresy remains beguiling for most of its length — then it all unravels during a frustratingly busy final act. We spend much of the film puttering around in our suspicions, wondering if our worst fears about a person or a thing are correct or if we’ve given too much credence to unhealthy speculation. We have fun in thrall to its duplicity. Screenwriter Scott Smith’s slick and mischievous dialogue is made further enjoyable by the actors, who savor its quick-footedness.

 

The Burnt Orange Heresy is built mostly on two deceptions, though the full extent of only one of them is made clear. Shortly into the movie, James is invited to the estate of the limber, toothy art dealer Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger), who has summoned his guest to make him a morally dubious offer. He will secure him an interview with Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland), a cultishly beloved surrealist painter who hasn’t released anything since the late 1960s, if James can promise to steal one of his paintings. Already-almighty Joseph will get another leg up in the art world; James will get a career boost.

 

The more oblique of the deceptions — that is to say the one more founded in inference and suspicion than proven deceit — is a relationship James starts with a sylphlike young woman named Berenice (a great Elizabeth Debicki). She claims that she’s visiting Italy alone, and that she originally hails from a midwestern town so small that she’d rather say she’s from its larger, neighboring city so as not to go through the motions of explaining its exact location. But part of James starts thinking, once he has gotten into Joseph's graces, that Berenice's backstory might be a ploy (he met her while he was giving that aforementioned lecture), and that she has possibly been hired by the dealer to seduce him and then mislead him in some way he cannot be sure of. 

 

The dream for The Burnt Orange Heresy, which is an adaptation of Charles Willeford’s 1971 novel, is for it to be a frothy caper movie. You might know the kind: one where we cannot be sure of anyone’s intentions just like the people duping others/being duped within it; where the thrills are easy and final moments are as neatly delivered as they are a logical conclusion to a movie’s worth of stylish, wittily-dialogued cloak-and-daggery. Alas, the film tricks us. We’re led to think it's going to be exactly that. Smith's dialogue is so playful and rhythmic; the direction from Giuseppe Capotondi, with his first new feature-length project since 2009's The Double Hour, is so unruffled and fashionably insouciant that it feels engineered to be called "breezy." But The Burnt Orange Heresy is in actuality meant to be more of a parable on greed and the dubious authenticity and ingrained misogyny of the art milieu. This is hammered in during the last stretch of the movie, a succession of nasty unpleasantness that might feel cathartic somehow if the film we were watching beforehand weren’t so crisp and seemingly teasingly devious. Instead, it feels sudden, badly conceived. 

 

The arc of the film might have made more sense if Smith and Capotondi made more of an effort to foreground a sense of menace — give the sleekness an unmistakable note of the ominous à la Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1990). That movie was also set in Italy and also had a Hitchcockian coolness. But it quietly made apparent from the outset that something very bad was going to happen. Because tonally the two halves of The Burnt Orange Heresy are so incompatible, it ultimately feels as though we’ve watched two different movies. The final half-hour is like a sudden crash from nowhere in the night, not a pent-up explosion finally given a chance to blow like it’s more-than-probably supposed to. I like the first movie much better — the one that finds this array of alluring actors tangoing with danger and hoping they don't have to pay the price for downplaying it so long. 

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in The Burnt Orange Heresy.

a mostly beguiling (and appropriately deceptive) caper that eventually gets ruinously ugly. As the action starts in the movie, a Cary Grant-looking art critic, James Figureas (Claes Bang), is giving a lecture to a group of tourists in Milan. Projected on a board behind him is a painting. It's yellowy and smudged — decidedly abstract. James is here to promote his new book “The Art of the Critic,” which, though not dwelled on in detail, seems to be an examination of the paradoxically constructive and destructive forces often at odds within the art form. On the one hand, criticism can broaden one's appreciation for a work of art; on the other, it can mislead if 

T

he opening scene of the The Burnt Orange Heresy (2020), a Hitchcock-lite thriller, is steeped in deception — a fitting introduction to what turns out to be

On The Burnt Orange Heresy and Class Action Park

Talk a Good Game 

September 15, 2020  

  

Double Feature

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in "The Burnt Orange Heresy."