In a recent interview, artist Ralph Steadman, the subject of the documentary For No Good Reason, was asked what the film gets right about him. His immediate reply: “I thought it was all wrong, actually; the whole film from beginning to end was completely wrong. You could probably sue them for all the mistakes they made.” Director Charlie Paul was sitting right next to him. The conversation was then overwhelmed by a story about a mutant sheep named Zeno, and Paul began to tear up with laughter. “This is our next film.”
An affably morbid Brit whose sense of humor is better ascribed to the guillotine than the gallows, Steadman almost certainly intended his critical assessment of the film to be taken with a shot of gin and a smile; with a man like that, there’s a fine line between taking a shot and taking the piss. Nevertheless, Steadman’s mirthfully harsh response is as perceptive a review as a documentary subject has ever offered—For No Good Reason is an absolute mess from start to finish, a portrait of an artist that’s almost rendered redundant by his art. And yet, for all its failings, the film is engagingly in tune with the man who inspired it. As Steadman reflects at one point, “Life always was a bit on the meaningless side.” If nothing else, For No Good Reason takes him at his word.
Many may not recognize Ralph Steadman’s name, but they’re almost certainly familiar with his work. Instrumental to the rise of gonzo journalism, Steadman was Hunter S. Thompson’s partner in crime, tagging along with the legendary wild man from Kentucky to Zaire and everywhere in between as they immersed themselves in the stories they were telling. Thompson wrote the words at his typewriter, and Steadman brought them to life with his pen, his ghoulish and immediately recognizable illustrations looking through the people they saw and making caricatures of their ids. Though Steadman created much of his most interesting work apart from Thompson, Steadman has been powerless to prevent their collaboration from defining his career.
Now a slightly maniacal 77-year-old who speaks with the gentle voice of Alfred Molina, he doesn’t seem too bitter about that. A better raconteur than he is a salesman—he’s reluctant to sell prints of his art, and it’s hard to watch as he tries to convince himself that signing them makes each entry unique to its edition—Steadman’s “so it goes” worldview dovetails nicely with his legacy of being the Ringo to Thompson’s John, Paul, and George. One of Steadman’s friends, however, refused to sit idly by as the artist’s genius went overlooked. For No Good Reason seems to exist because that friend was Johnny Depp.
Although Paul worked on the project for more than a decade, For No Good Reason is edited to play like a chronicle of the afternoon Depp spent visiting Steadman at the latter’s cottage studio. Depp, who’s known Steadman since playing Hunter S. Thompson’s proxy in the film version of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, serves as an adoring Virgil, leading the camera into Steadman’s house and literally opening the door into his world. The film so effectively uses rich animation and diary-like voiceover that it often feels like a direct portal into Steadman’s brain, and yet Paul reliably cuts back to Depp every few minutes as though the audience would always need to have the movie star’s banal words of praise fresh in their minds so his interest could validate their own. “Oh, Johnny Depp cares about this guy? I guess I should, too.”
Despite Depp’s best efforts, Thompson threatens to steal the spotlight, even from beyond the grave. The film is determined to prove that Steadman isn’t just an illustrator, but rather an artist in his own right, and yet Thompson’s enduring myth is so irresistible that Paul can never keep him out of the picture for long. The filmmaker has an extraordinary wealth of archival footage at his disposal, priceless stuff like Steadman and Thompson comparing egos and joining William S. Burroughs for target practice, but it’s deployed with such little rhyme or reason that For No Good Reason starts to feel like it’s only feeding into the shadow from which it wants Steadman to escape.
But if Paul recognized that the artist’s work speaks for itself, he wouldn’t have made this film in the first place. While the first-time director finds a number of effective ways to help engage the audience, his tactics are nearly for nothing, because the film is oppressively buried under a vile soundtrack. It’s never a good sign when The All-American Rejects appear in the credits of a movie, and an even worse one when they’re the opening credits. Was Hunter S. Thompson a diehard AAR fan? What other explanation could there be?
“Picasso convinced me,” Steadman explains in the interview linked above, “that the thing I can do is simply start a drawing, and it will come out the other end somehow, and I don’t know how it’s gonna come out, but that’s the fascination. That’s what makes it a worthwhile pursuit.” While that approach may work best for Steadman’s process, For No Good Reason suggests that it may not have been the best way to document it.