Though its title inspires visions of an unholy alliance of Roger Corman, Ron Howard and misbehaving clergymen congregating in a maniacally violent video game, "Grand Theft Parsons" is actually a rather tame road movie celebrating the extreme bonds of friendship. The Parsons in question is singer-songwriter Gram, who dies pretty much in the film's opening scene, and whose corpse becomes the object of some well-intentioned body snatching.
The more or less true story of the events following the musician's death from a drug overdose in 1973 is told from the perspective of Parsons' pal and road manager, Phil Kaufman. In fact and in film, Kaufman made off with Parsons' coffin from a hangar at LAX and took it to Joshua Tree National Park to carry out the last wish of the former member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" infamy stars as Kaufman, a hirsute, denim- and leather-clad Harley-riding fiend, on a mission to follow through on the vow he and Parsons made that when one of them died, the other would take the body to Joshua Tree, hoist a few drinks and burn it. Knoxville is surprisingly good playing a man who may have been in one too many barroom brawls, moving with a hunched, hips-forward swagger that suggests someone constantly walking through very low doorways.
The script, however, leaves a lot to be desired, strewn with dialogue as flat and stale as old beer and some invented characters who make the events depicted seem more silly than anarchic.
Knoxville has some occasionally funny buddy moments with Michael Shannon, who plays Kaufman's initially unwitting accomplice, Larry Oster-Berg, the owner of a flower-power hearse that functions as the caper's getaway vehicle. Larry, a hippie-dippy yoga practitioner, grates on Kaufman's biker ethos in a weird sort of counterculture clash.
Christina Applegate, in the thankless, fictional role of Parsons' ex-girlfriend Barbara, provides the propulsion for the low-speed pursuit through the California desert. A one-note shrew, Barbara brandishes a scrap of paper she claims Gram wrote promising her a significant inheritance and wants to claim the body before Phil torches it.
Robert Forster shows up in what amounts to a cameo as Parsons' estranged father, who simply wants to take his boy home to New Orleans for burial.
The pacing of the film is too slow, but director David Caffrey does well by Joshua Tree, capturing some of its haunted existentialism, depicting it as a powerful draw for cosmic cowboys such as Parsons and Kaufman.
The best thing about this otherwise unremarkable film is the spirited music Parsons left behind, which graces the soundtrack. Music from his own career, along with covers by contemporary bands such as Starsailor, Primal Scream and Wilco, plus songs by Bruce Springsteen and others inspired by Parsons, remind us that the country singer who behaved like a rock star deserves a better movie.
'Grand Theft Parsons'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for drug references and some language
Times guidelines: A drug overdose, some general debauchery
Johnny Knoxville...Phil Kaufman
Michael Shannon...Larry Oster-Berg
Robert Forster...Stanley Parsons
Swipe Films presents, a Frank Mannion production, in association with Morty-Stevie G Productions and Redbus Film Distribution, released by Swipe Films. Director David Caffrey. Producer Frank Mannion. Executive producers Matt Candel, Brad Zipper, Jesse Itzler, Zygi Kamasa, Simon Franks. Screenplay Jeremy Drysdale. Cinematographer Robert Hayes. Editors Alan Roberts, Mary Finlay. Music Richard G. Mitchell. Costume designer Sophie De Rakoff Carbonell. Production designer Bryce Elric Holtshousen. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010; Laemmle's One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; and Edwards University 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.