Grand Theft Parsons

on June 18, 2004 by Mark Keizer
Press materials for the body-snatching road movie "Grand Theft Parsons" trumpets how influential the late country singer Gram Parsons was to the film's major players and how thrilled they were to bring the final chapter of his life story to the screen. However, their love for Parsons' music is not even remotely conveyed in this limp, low-budget offering. Ex-MTV star Johnny Knoxville shows a strong and amiable presence in his first leading role and comes out generally unscathed. Unfortunately, writer Jeremy Drysdale's wafer-thin characters fail to explain why Parsons was worth all this trouble and why they'd risk so much to fulfill the dead man's odd request. It's an aggravating film that seems content to skim the surface before folding up its tent after a scant 88 minutes.

One major problem is that the filmmakers seem more interested in the story than in the people who lived it. But it is a great tale: Parsons was 26 when he died of a drug overdose at the Joshua Tree Inn in 1973 (the death scene was shot in the actual room where Parsons died). Parson's road manager Phil Kaufman (Knoxville) gets the call and immediately tries to steal the body from the local hospital. Two months earlier, the pair made a pact wherein the first one to die would be cremated at the Joshua Tree National Park. After unsuccessfully trying to commandeer the body from the hospital, Phil tries to swipe it as it passes through LAX. For this, he enlists hippie burnout Larry Oster-Berg (Michael Shannon), who owns a ridiculous yellow hearse complete with painted-on flowers. Complicating things is Parsons' girlfriend Barbara (Christina Applegate), who needs the body in order to obtain the death certificate necessary to lay dubious claim to Parsons' money. There's also the matter of Gram's father Stanley (Robert Forster), who has flown to Los Angeles to take possession of his son for a proper burial in New Orleans. So, with Parsons in the back seat of the hearse, Phil, Stanley and Barbara race to Joshua Tree and the inevitable showdown.

As told in countless better movies, the music business employs extremely passionate people willing to endure almost anything to satisfy their need to make and be around music. Just a taste of that devotion would have deepened the experience here and made Kaufman's trek seem less of a strict obligation. For Kaufman to fulfill a potentially dangerous and illegal promise is great, but he never confesses any love, respect or admiration for Parsons as a musician or a man. Nor have we any indication of whether Phil loves his job, loves music or feels guilty that he failed to protect Gram from overdosing. In fact, during a final, imaginary conversation with the musician, Phil blandly explains his participation in the heist by saying, "That's what you paid me for." (Trivia buffs take note: The real Phil Kaufman cameos at the end.)

With the exception of Barbara, who mentions that she was orphaned at 14 and waitressing at 15, the characters are blank. Hints of Stanley's failure as a father and Phil's shortcomings as a friend pop up briefly but are not explored. This is especially grievous considering much of the film involves characters sitting in their cars, leaving ample time for reflection.

Director David Caffrey can't quite nail the tone, though there is a sense that he wants some of this to play wacky, especially the scene where Phil and Larry escape the police by driving over the cop's motorcycle. But attempts at humor are just an empty threat. Shannon, as the half-lidded Larry, does give the film some spice, while Applegate is shrill and wasted in a one-note role. Thank goodness for Robert Forster, who lends gravitas to every line reading. As for Knoxville, he attempts a Southern accent, then drops it after five minutes. And while he's unable to bring life to such a poorly drawn creation, he's not a bad actor and his older, more weathered face serves him well.

Snippets of Parsons' music fill up the soundtrack, but in most cases they're too brief and fail to illuminate the depths of his talent. And that's what's so dispiriting about the film: not only have we gained no insight into Gram Parson, we've gained no interest either. Starring Johnny Knoxville, Christina Applegate and Robert Forster. Directed by David Caffrey. Written by Jeremy Drysdale. Produced by Frank Mannion. A Swipe Films release. Comedy/Drama. Rated PG-13 for drug references and some language. Running time: 88 min

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