Grand Theft Parsons

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I direct your attention to this Web page, where the real story of the death and subsequent adventures of Gram Parsons is told. It’s a curious tale, to be sure, and it’s even more interesting than “Grand Theft Parsons,” the likable but slight film that dramatizes it.

We are told (for we do not remember, really) that Gram Parsons was the “standard-bearer in the new country music movement,” a pioneer in the genre of country rock, when he died of a drug overdose in 1973. His road manager and best friend Phil Kaufman (Johnny Knoxville), upon hearing of the death, immediately goes about fulfilling a pact he and Gram once made with each other: They swore that whoever died first, the other one would “set his spirit free” in California’s Joshua Tree National Forest.

“Set his spirit free” is evidently early-’70s talk for “cremate him,” but that is beside the point. The point is that Phil has no legal claim to the body; that would be Gram’s father Stanley (Robert Forster), who wants to take it back to New Orleans for funereal purposes. Meanwhile, Gram’s gold-digging girlfriend Barbara (Christina Applegate) wants the body because she needs it to get a death certificate, which she needs to lay claim to his money, which she insists he left to her.

So we have three separate parties endeavoring to procure a dead body, setting the stage for a potential farce of “Weekend at Bernie’s” proportions, especially after Phil actually gets the body and heads for Joshua Tree. But instead of wackiness, writer Jeremy Drysdale and director David Caffrey take the story other directions, and without much flair. There are bright moments between Johnny Knoxville (who really is doing good work here) and Michael Shannon as the hippie whose run-down hearse he borrows for the bodysnatching, but basically, all the obstacles are overcome as you’d expect, with little imagination. The story is told dutifully, almost by rote.

There are several implausibilities within the story that you’d accept in an all-out farce because of the exaggerated nature of the genre. This is no farce, though, despite the subject matter. It’s given a low-key treatment that unfortunately only serves to highlight the parts that don’t seem logical: Gram’s father’s ultimate decision about the body, various encounters with police, Phil’s girlfriend embarking on a road trip with Gram’s girlfriend, for example. But Knoxville’s and Shannon’s outgoing performances make it all watchable, if not especially memorable.

C+ (1 hr., 28 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some mild profanity, some drug references.)

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