GRAND THEFT PARSONSPG-13
One of the weirder footnotes to the career of singer/songwriter Gram Parsons, a member of The Byrds, founder of The Flying Burrito Brothers, and later a solo artist, is his death. Actually, the aftermath of his death in 1973 of a drug overdose. As recounted in Grand Theft Parsons, his road manager Phil Kaufman, honoring a pledge the two had made earlier, cremated his body in the desert at Joshua Tree, California. How Kaufman got Parsons' body there makes up the bulk of this amusing, shambling film.
Based in part on Kaufman's memoirs, Grand Theft Parsons finds and sustains a hard-to-achieve offhand tone. Dredging up dimly remembered conflicts between hippies and police, and between squares and dropouts, screenwriter Jeremy Drysdale discovers humor in all the arguments. When it does falter, Grand Theft Parsons leans towards the sort of pat sermonizing that its real-life characters would disdain.
Director David Caffrey adopts a dry, deadpan tone for most of the film, allowing the bizarre elements of the story to stand on their own. Due to Parsons' tangled estate, there was in fact a sense of urgency over claiming his body. The filmmakers use a fictionalized ex-girlfriend, Barbara (Christina Applegate), who needs a death certificate to get into Parsons' bank account, and Parsons' businessman father (Robert Forster) to add some tension to the plot.
Thankfully, most of the film concentrates on the efforts of Kaufman (Johnny Knoxville) and hippie chauffeur Larry Oster-Berg (Michael Shannon) to transport Parsons from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree. Arguing over everything from lunch to yoga, they are an adroit and appealing comic team. Their encounters with a bureaucracy that is corrupt, complacent or oblivious are just as funny. While mortuary clerk Jonathan Slavin pockets twenties for what turns out to be the wrong body, airport cop Clint Culp delivers winning lines like, 'Wherever there's a hippie there's a crime, even if that crime hasn't happened yet.'
Knoxville commits himself to Kaufman's character, dispensing with the shtick that many of his fans may be expecting. He has limited acting chops, but he earns and keeps viewers' sympathy. Forster is disarmingly restrained, although his role could have been fleshed out a bit more. Applegate and Marley Shelton (as Kaufman's long-suffering girlfriend) are held back by thin, poorly written parts that don't really figure into the main plot. The real find here is Shannon, whose pacifist, vegetarian, Zen-spouting hippie is hilarious and sad at the same time. 'Do you mean Gram Parsons is dead?' he asks in stunned disbelief halfway through the movie, nailing his character's naive, drugged-out, but still sweet-tempered nature.
Grand Theft Parsons showcases some of Parsons' songs, but this is more a story about friendship and loyalty than about music. Despite the ghoulish humor and sometimes strained lectures against 'selling out,' in the end it is a touching tribute to a man who stayed true to his word.