Although rough-edged like its roadie hero and clearly shot on the cheap, “Grand Theft Parsons” is a likably laid-back spin about the bizarre fate of rock ‘n’ roll legend Gram Parsons’ corpse. Inspired by a true story, pic travels down familiar genre highways, but quirky humor and an apt soundtrack make for a pleasant enough journey. As long as savvy marketing prepares “Jackass” fans not to expect silly stunts from star Johnny Knoxville, playing it straight here, “Grand Theft Parsons” could do modest niche business theatrically and better still on video and DVD.
Pic leans on Parsons’ friend and road manager Phil Kaufman’s book “Road Mangler Deluxe,” telling, with a few fictional embellishments, how, in accordance with a drunken pact, Kaufman stole the country-rock musician’s body in order to perform an amateur cremation in the desert near Joshua Tree, Calif.
Parsons (played here by Gabriel Macht) remains a cult figure in the annals of rock and country music. Opening sequence mixes archive and dramatic footage to depict how the one-time member of the Byrds, co-founder of the Flying Burrito Brothers and friend of the Rolling Stones died from a drug overdose at the age of 26 in a hotel room in 1973.
When a grief-struck Kaufman (Knoxville) hears the news, he feels compelled to honor Parsons’ wish to be laid to rest in the high desert he loved and so frequently got high in. This means somehow swiping the body before it’s flown back to the South for a pending family funeral.
Despite the fact that his girlfriend Susie (Marley Shelton) is leaving him due to his prolonged absences from home, Kaufman sets off. Not far behind is Parsons’ sometime g.f. Barbara (an invented character, embodied by with shrill gusto by Christina Applegate), an avaricious shrew with a legally dubious “will,” supposedly handwritten by Parsons, that bequeaths her all his worldly goods. Barbara needs a death certificate to pursue her case, and for that she needs the body.
Kaufman manages to stay one step ahead by hiring a bright yellow hearse and the services of its owner, ditzy hippie Larry Oster-Berg, played with languid charm by Michael Shannon (“Bad Boys II”). Kaufman and Oster-Berg set off for Joshua Tree, bickering all the way and pursued by Barbara, who has dragged Susie along for the ride, and a perplexed Stanley (Robert Forster), Parsons’ father.
Pic ends on with a mixture of nicely underplayed solemnity, but also too-neat comic closure.
As with his first film, “Divorcing Jack,” helmer David Caffrey proves more adept with banter than slapstick. As for performances, he gets better results with the well-cast supporting and bit players than the leads. Predictably, Knoxville is less charismatic here than in his own guise on “Jackass,” but he has a certain sleepy, rangy charm and keeps pace with the more dramatically experienced Shannon, who has the stoner shtick down pat. Latter’s deadpan monologue about all the drugs he’s ever consumed is one of pic’s comic highlights.
But a little of the twosome’s contrived conflict goes a long way, and pacing grinds in the middle section. Elsewhere, the occasional anachronistic phrase stands out, as when Barbara predicts someone will make Kaufman his “bitch” in prison.
Editing is kept wisely tight given that the “Dude, where’s my corpse?” premise feels stretched. Period production design and costumes are on the money, with Kaufman’s pad in particular achieving miraculous authenticity from the fact that now-vanished house was recorded on film when used as a location for Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” in 1973. Similarly, associate producer Kaufman reportedly loaned Knoxville his original customized denim jacket, a fact destined to be discussed in detail on a future DVD commentary. Lensing is nondescript, sound bright.
Solid soundtrack mixes Parsons’ original tunes and covers by younger artists.