Film Review: For No Good Reason Illustrates The Life Of Iconic Cartoonist Ralph Steadman

Artistic Documentary Illustrates The Life And Work Of Hunter S. Thompson Collaborator Ralph Steadman

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
For No Good Reason
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“It’s a very odd idea to make a movie, film, documentary about an artist,” says artist Ralph Steadman at the beginning of For No Good Reason, the documentary/self-fulfilling prophecy about him. “In one way it’s rather a good idea. In another you wonder why one is doing it?” If, as someone once said (Frank Zappa? Steve Martin? Laurie Anderson? Martin Mull?), writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then making a film about art is just as paradoxical. … And yet the edgy, aggressively vivid artwork of Ralph Steadman would seem like the perfect subject to examine in the visual medium of film.

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.

Depp, longtime friends with Thompson and a de facto associate with Steadman because of it, spends the bulk of
For No Good Reason hanging out at the artist’s studio in rural England and quizzing him about his history and technique. The film that’s been built around these casual conversations is both self-conscious and aggressively artistic. First-time director Charlie Paul pulls out all the stops in terms of visual razzle dazzle. He digs up old film footage of Steadman and Thompson. He has an animator bring Steadman’s drawings to life—often directly off the pages of his books. Historical recreations take the form of close-ups on objects like ink wells, shot glasses, smoking cigarette butts and toy airplanes. If he’s forced to rely on a talking head interview—with, let’s say, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner or filmmaker Terry Gilliam—Paul tosses it onto a flickering old TV set plopped into the middle of an exquisitely art-directed tableau. Visually speaking the film is never even slightly boring. But it does run the risk of distracting from the subject at hand.

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.
Steadman illustration

Ralph Steadman

Ralph Steadman and Johnny Depp

Ralph Steadman and Johnny Depp watching a hilarious “Perfect Strangers” marathon as they do every Sunday.

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