Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Grand Theft Parsons

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

GRAND THEFT PARSONS

6/10

USA (US/UK) 2003 : David CAFFREY : 88 mins

At the time of the actual body-snatching in 1973, Kaufman ’s house was being used as a location for the movie Night Moves [1975]. The director Arthur Penn and star Gene Hackman were shooting in Kaufman ’s house when the police came to arrest him. Hackman, on hearing the story, remarked,  “I think we ’re shooting the wrong movie. ”
Grand Theft Parsons production notes

 ‘The story ’ told to Hackman is basically this: when 26-year-old country-rock legend Gram Parsons (Flying Burrito Brothers, Byrds, etc) died of a drug overdose in 1973, his body was  ‘stolen ’ by his longtime best pal and road-manager, the hard-living Phil Kaufman. The pair had (drunkenly) agreed that, whichever of them passed on first, the other would  ‘free his spirit ’ by burning the corpse in the majestic open-air desert surroundings of Joshua Tree, California. Grand Theft Parsons is a film inspired by these real-life events, with Jackass star Johnny Knoxville as Kaufman and Gabriel Macht in fleeting appearances as Parsons (alive, dead and ghostly).

As it turns out, in a way Hackman was dead wrong  – Night Moves is a cracking post-Watergate neo-noir whose reputation justifiably continues to swell three decades on. Grand Theft Parsons is small beer in comparison, an amusingly shaggy-dog but plot-thin low-budget indie that milks some decent laughs out of material loaded with high-farce potential. As best illustrated by the classic Fawlty Towers episode  ‘The Kipper and the Corpse ’, a cadaver can often be the funniest comedy  ‘prop. ’

Parsons only very occasionally flies so high  – Irishman Caffrey is a serviceable director at best, with a workmanlike visual style and some awful soundtrack choices (Primal Scream ’s  ‘Movin ’ Up ’ at a crucial stage, when surely a Parsons track or cover would have been more appropriate). Caffrey adds little to Jeremy Drysdale ’s hit-and-miss script, which inserts an invented character to create some artificial drama and set up a  ‘tense ’ climax: Parsons ’ ex-girlfriend Barbara (Christina Applegate), who needs the corpse intact to obtain a death-certificate and thus cash in on a scrap of paper she claims is Parsons ’ will.

As well as eluding Barbara, Kaufman must also keep one step ahead of Parsons ’ father Stanley (a bemused Robert Forster) who has flown from Louisiana to collect the body. Then there ’s also the law to contend with  – or rather not, as the boys in blue are mostly conspicuous by their absence. Once he ’d decided to leave the strict facts (as documented in Kaufman ’s book Road Mangler Deluxe ) behind, Drysdale should have gone the whole hog and turned Grand Theft Parsons into a full-on Cannonball Run crazy road-movie adventure.

Presumably for budgetary reasons, however, what we get is much closer to a quirky two-hander in the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas mode  – Kaufman hires a hearse from stone-out hippie Larry Oster-Berg (Michael Shannon), and the oddly-named Oster-Berg insists on coming along for the ride to ensure no harm comes to his prized, garishly-painted  ‘funeral vehicle. ’ The interplay between the bikerish, whiskey-swigging Kaufman and the spacey hippie Oster-Berg is what gives Grand Theft Parsons much of its charm, even when the ever-stormy relationship turns slapstick-violent later on. Knoxville brings a jaded, anything-goes charm to Kaufman, but while he isn ’t yet much of an actor the much more experienced Shannon (he was the scruffy bogus  “cab driver ” back in The Game) is luckily on hand to bail him  – and the movie – out.

Getting back to that Hackman  “wrong movie ” quote, however … Looking at it another way, he was kind of spot on: there is a great story here, only it ’s not the one Caffrey and Drysdale have chosen to tell. It seems perverse that, reproducing the Night Moves connection in the press-notes, the film-makers didn ’t see fit to include this in the film itself  – again, presumably the (visibly) low budget ruled this out. But how frustrating not to have the scene where the cops come looking for Kaufman, and end up stumble across Hollywood heavyweights Hackman and Penn. And who ’s to say some of Night Moves other colourful participants weren ’t around that day, like the Scots-exile screenwriter Alan Sharp, or performers like 18-year-old (and nude) newcomer Melanie Griffith, or a scrappy greenhorn actor called James Woods.

With all this great stuff lying just off-camera, Grand Theft Parsons  – which feels padded to reach bare-minimum feature length  – seems even more like a missed opportunity. Perhaps Caffrey and Drysdale might now turn to another now-forgotten real-life seventies tale involving the snatching of a celebrity cadaver  – this time  ‘starring ’ an even more illustrious corpse: Grand Theft Chaplin, anyone?

3rd December, 2003
(seen 28th November : Customs House, South Shields  – Sunderland Film Festival)

by Neil Young