Judge Mitchell Hattaway was dismayed to discover this film wasn't a sequel to Opie Cunningham's directorial debut, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.
It's better to burn out than to fade away.
That guy who used to get kicked in the balls on MTV and Kelly Bundy fight over the body of a dead singer. Trust me—it's better than it sounds.
Facts of the Case
At the 1973 funeral of their friend Clarence White, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons and his road manager Phil Kaufman made a drunken pact: if one of them died, the surviving man would take the other's body out to Joshua Tree, and burn the remains. Well, wouldn't you know it, Gram up and died three months later, and Phil made it his mission to fulfill his late buddy's wish. Phil, along with his friend Michael Martin, borrowed a hearse, drove to Los Angeles International Airport (Gram's body was scheduled to be transported to Louisiana), bamboozled the shipping clerk, and made off with Gram's body. After making a stop for beer and gasoline, they headed for Joshua Tree, where, in a blaze of glory, they sent Gram's soul into the next world. A few days later, Phil and Michael were arrested and fined 700 bucks for stealing and burning the coffin (there was no law against stealing the body).
Okay, so that's the real story—or as real as you can expect the story to be when it's coming from the mouth of a guy like Phil Kaufman. Grand Theft Parsons takes the basics of these real-life events and shoehorns them into a rather conventional narrative. I was fully expecting to dislike this film, but, lo and behold, I found it mildly entertaining.
For much of its running time, there's an affably loopy quality to Grand Theft Parsons. I don't care how true it is, Phil Kaufman's story is pretty frickin' ridiculous, so playing up the stoner-bud road trip aspects of the tale works in the film's favor. The best scenes in the film are those of Phil Kaufman (Johnny Knoxville, Walking Tall) and Larry Oster-Berg (Michael Shannon, Vanilla Sky) driving around in a yellow hearse after they've stolen the corpse of Gram Parsons (Gabriel Macht, Behind Enemy Lines). (The Oster-Berg character stands in for Kaufman's friend Michael Martin; I imagine there were legal reasons behind the change.) Phil's pretty much an aimless bonehead with a dogged resolve to see his friend's body set ablaze in the California desert, and Larry's little more than a hippie in desperate need of 200 dollars, but they're endearingly goofy (or goofily endearing—take your pick). In fact, they're so endearingly goofy the film has a tendency to lose its way when they're not on screen, but we'll get to that in a minute.
I think a good bit of the film's appeal can be chalked up to the performances. I'll admit, I've always found Knoxville's antics amusing (I thought Jackass was exceedingly funny, which I guess says a lot about me), and this role is tailor-made for him; he strikes me as the kind of guy who actually would steal a body and then set it on fire in the middle of the desert. Shannon does good work as a stereotypical hippie (is there any other kind?), and, for me, his casual listing of the various illegal substances with which he's experimented provides the film's biggest laugh. (If anyone ever makes a biopic about comedian Steven Wright, Shannon should be first in line for the lead role; whether it's intentional or not, his performance here is the best impression of Wright I've ever seen.) Robert Forster (Jackie Brown), as can be expected, is very good as Stanley Parsons, Gram's father. Christina Applegate (The Sweetest Thing), as Barbara, Gram's psycho ex-girlfriend, and Marley Shelton (Bubble Boy), as Susie, Phil's current girlfriend, have rather thankless roles, but they make the most of them (especially Applegate), and they're both easy on the eyes. Jonathan Slavin (Andy Richter Controls the Universe) has some very funny moments as the clerk Knoxville dupes into releasing Gram's body. The late, great character actor Kay E. Kuter (The Last Starfighter) has one brief scene as an undertaker, and Paul Goebel (the TV Geek from Comedy Central's Beat the Geeks) has a nice bit as the gas station attendant who sells Phil the gas later used to cremate Gram's body.
Grand Theft Parsons sports a pretty good transfer; there's a smattering of grain in a few shots, as well as some edge enhancement, but, given the low budget nature of the film, it looks far better than I expected. The audio presentation is also quite pleasing. There's a very good spread across the front three channels, and dialogue is always clear and intelligible. There's not an abundance of surround action, or deep bass activity, but it's still a pretty good track. The songs sprinkled throughout the film are very well-represented; I don't think Gram's work has ever sounded so good.
Okay, so that's the good. Now for the bad…
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of the film's fictional elements don't work. The plot threads involving the characters portrayed by Forster, Applegate, and Shelton aren't really necessary, and they're also the weakest elements of the film. I guess director David Caffrey and screenwriter Jeremy Drysdale thought it necessary to inject these characters and story elements into the film to beef up the narrative, but I think they were mistaken. They also throw in couple of overly serious scenes, but, thankfully, these moments are few and far between.
The extras aren't much. A handful of deleted scenes, some interviews with a few members of the cast and crew, and that's it. Phil Kaufman, who comes across as a legend in his own mind, is also interviewed, and while listening to him I kept thinking that someone should have liquored him up and had him record a commentary.
The soundtrack of Grand Theft Parsons contains a few snippets of Gram Parsons's songs, and although he was a little under-appreciated in his lifetime, it's now easy to see how much of an impact he had on certain aspects of popular music. He was a member of the Byrds for only about five months, but you only need compare that band pre- and post-Gram to see how much he changed their sound. His influence can be heard on early Eagles albums (Eagles co-founder Bernie Leadon played guitar in Parsons's Flying Burrito Brothers before hooking up with those two guys from Linda Ronstadt's backing band), and I doubt Wilco would even exist had it not been for Gram's pioneering work. Given that, I think it would be nice to see a film about Parsons himself. Grand Theft Parsons doesn't really shine much light on him, and that's not a criticism, as this story is really about Kaufman, but Gram's is a story waiting to be told.
One last thing. Why is the name of Applegate's character listed as "Betty" on the back of the packaging? That's a little sloppy.
Grand Theft Parson is nothing more than a disposable diversion, but there's nothing wrong with that. It's not much, but it does sorta work, and it's not a bad way to kill 88 minutes. If you're so inclined, I'd suggest a rental.
Not guilty. Now excuse me while I go listen to the Byrds. Court is adjourned.
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