For No Good Reason
Artistic documentary illustrates the life and work of Hunter S. Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman
For No Good Reason
Directed by Charlie Paul
Mr. Steadman can hold his own. Simply watching him in the studio, working on his art, soaking up inspiration from seemingly random spatters of blood-like ink on toothy paper, is a revelation.
For No Good Reason is hosted/narrated by nouveau bohemian actor Johnny Depp. Although his taste in film projects has dipped somewhat over the years (Alice in Wonderland? The Lone Ranger?), his loyalty has not. You apparently can’t drag him away from his Captain Jack Sparrow character for love or money, and For No Good Reason represents his third trip into Hunter S. Thompson territory (after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary). As an illustrator (or “cartoonist” as he humbly calls himself), Steadman is inexorably linked to Hunter S. Thompson and the birth of “gonzo journalism.” The two first collaborated on a booze-fueled trip to the 1970 Kentucky Derby. Since then Steadman’s ink-splattered pics have become a visual shorthand for the manic, drug-addled writings of Thompson.
All that window dressing isn’t really necessary. Mr. Steadman can hold his own. Simply watching him in the studio, working on his art, soaking up inspiration from seemingly random spatters of blood-like ink on toothy paper, is a revelation. There is, as they say, a method to the madness. From those chaotic splotches, slashes and scrapes emerge images of savage wit. Combined with his personal history and his William Hogarth-like ability to capture debauched humanity, we see why Steadman’s satirical portraiture has had such a primal impact.
With the obviously hero-worshipping Depp front and center, though, it’s clear that For No Good Reason isn’t going to probe very deeply. Steadman touches on a brutal spell in grammar school, which undoubtedly kickstarted his antiauthoritarian streak. But the film never reconciles the dichotomy between the polite, semi-sober Englishman and his acidic sense of humor. For No Good Reason takes Steadman’s artwork at face value, slavishly emulating its “feeling,” if not its “meaning.” For all its bells and whistles, it’s a work of arm’s length hagiography. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you’re a fan going in, you’ll be a fan coming out. Obviously talented but overeager, the film’s chief architect simply tries too hard, making everything cluttered and overworked. But you can’t really fault Mr. Paul’s efforts. In the end any chance to see an iconic artist like Steadman at work is time well spent.