Grand Theft Parsons is a multi-dimensional buddy / road movie. One buddy is dead, one buddy is alive and there are also two female buddies involved who aren’t really buddies. Phil Kaufman (Johnny Knoxville) steals Gram Parson’s body (Gabriel Macht) in order to fulfil his promise to cremate him at his favourite place in the desert. In order to do so he hires a hearse, although unfortunately its hippy owner Larry Oster-Berg (Michael Shannon) insists on joining him. Michael Shannon’s hippy is unbelievably entertaining – a character that could easily have been a stereotypical joke instead has real depth.
A lot of the fun is derived from Oster-Berg not realising that he is in fact going to collect a dead body from the airport, rather than a live one. The relationship that develops between the scheming smart-ass Kaufman and the naive junky hippy is at the heart of most of the comedy in the movie. Once they are already on the road with the body, Kaufman’s girlfriend and Parson’s girlfriend form an uneasy alliance and follow them in a car. The entire group is hotly pursued by Gram Parson’s father Stanley Parsons (Robert Forster).
Jeremy Drysdale’s script is littered with little gems. In his search for Parson’s body, Kaufman calls up the funeral parlour where he knows the body is being kept. The aged funeral director is obviously proud of the status of his most recent deceased client and bemoans the fact that he had to send the body on to another state for burial. He adds ‘We nearly had Jane Mansfield in 1967’. Kaufman enters the hospital where Parson’s body is and tries to blag his way past the head nurse. She quips ‘Mr Parson is dead and it appears no longer needs a road manager!’ Towards the end of the film everyone meets up at the hotel where Parsons died. The two women arrive to find Kaufman with a wound on his head. One of them asks ‘What happened to your head?’ He replies, dead-pan, ‘A hippy hit it’.
In one of the climactic scenes, Kaufman and his friends are confronted by Parson’s father. It’s a heart-rending scene in which both Parsons senior and Kaufman realise that neither of them was there for Gram in his hour of need. This combination of pathos and broad comedy makes Grand Theft Parsons bizarre viewing. Every time the audience is ‘distracted’ by the beautiful desert scenery, something happens to bring you back; the hearse breaks down, the police turn up, the hippy drives into a road sign, or Kaufman gets a bottle over the head. Although the story doesn’t quite manage to tug at the heart strings thanks to the continuous comedy capers, it is entertaining, energetic and sometimes tender. At the very least, your feet will find themselves tapping to the music.