Ralph Steadman, the painter, illustrator, longtime Rolling Stone contributor and Hunter S. Thompson foil, was not a typical 20th-century art figure. In “For No Good Reason,” director Charlie Paul attempts to construct a fittingly off-center documentary study, and while the effort is admirable, the result is a bit unwieldy, casting too wide a net to really plumb its subject’s depths, and defanging some of Steadman’s acid wit with an overly busy, hit-and-miss aesthetic approach. The film is hardly without its pleasures, however, and should attract fair attention through its Sony Classics release.
Though it incorporates archival footage, reams of photographs and seemingly limitless selections of the artist’s alternately lurid, provocative and hilarious work, the film is largely shot on Steadman’s country estate, with Johnny Depp serving as a sort of tour guide, narrator and slightly boozy interlocutor. Depp’s presence makes sense in theory — in addition to playing Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Depp was also a personal friend — but starts to feel more and more shoehorned-in as the film goes on, particularly given the number of long cutaways to the actor nodding approvingly as Steadman speaks.
As for Steadman, the 77-year-old Brit makes a wonderfully ornery raconteur, and though he’s likely told these stories hundreds of times before, his accounts of how he came to serve as Thompson’s illustrator (first for “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” and then, most iconically, for “Fear and Loathing”) are eternally absorbing. Vintage, little-seen footage of Steadman and Thompson riffing and bickering throughout the decades will surely prove catnip to the late writer’s fans, though the film does well to stress that Steadman did plenty of great work outside that famous partnership.
In the pic’s best sequence, we watch the artist at work on a large canvas. Starting with a random, violently applied inkblot, Steadman begins to unearth recognizable figures and images, only to obscure them with another messy layer of paint, and unearth them yet again. Observing the methodical way he maintains this delicate, continual balance between chaos and focus, destruction and restoration, provides valuable insight into Steadman’s process. Less successful are the film’s repeated attempts to animate several of the artist’s most recognizable drawings (Steadman’s work is plenty animated without the effect), and a number of cutesy transitions and interstitials only muddy the film’s overall tone.
While the pic includes rather little straight biographical detail — it comes as a bit of surprise to glimpse Steadman’s wife in one of the final reels, as his family has gone entirely unmentioned throughout — the windows it does offer are quite revealing. Steadman’s recollections of how his schooling inculcated a lifelong mistrust of authority are particularly perceptive, and his obvious discomfort as he attempts to diplomatically discuss the mini merchandising empire that has developed around his work speaks volumes.
Yet there are a bit too many unexplained digressions, and the film flails from beginner’s-level explanations to insider references with little consistency. Surely anyone interested in a Ralph Steadman documentary would be familiar with the concept of “gonzo journalism,” which the film does helpfully define, yet Steadman and Thompson’s lesser-known adventures in Zaire and Honolulu, and at the America’s Cup, are cursorily referenced as though they’ve since entered into popular legend. Steadman’s illustrated biography of Leonardo Da Vinci is likewise never satisfactorily explored, and while his politics may be inseparable from much of his art, filming him reading aloud from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is hardly an ideal way to illustrate that.
In one of Paul’s more inexplicable decisions, the docu is peppered with schlocky, deafeningly loud pop-rock songs from the likes of Slash, the All-American Rejects and Jason Mraz, all of which couldn’t be further removed from Steadman’s artistic sensibilities. Editing and camerawork, however, are sharp and effective.