Ralph Steadman deserves a better documentary than “For No Good Reason,” a serviceable but shallow look into his life and artistic process. Steadman is best known for his inspired cartoon collaborations with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and while it was fun to revel in those good old days, this film didn’t really add anything to my understanding of their relationship, or of Steadman in general. It was more like an appreciation than a documentary.
Most deserving of the “for no good reason” label is the presence of Johnny Depp. Is there nothing this man is not in these days? His presence seems due to his portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson in Terry Gilliam’s masterful film adaptation of Thompson’s classic work “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and I’ll be the first to admit that Depp was great in that movie. But I don’t see why that qualifies him to interview Ralph Steadman throughout the entire documentary.
And he didn’t really even interview him; he just sort of wandered around listening, or trying to. His noncommittal “Sure, yeah” responses to Steadman’s lengthy discourses reminded me of a bored guy at Thanksgiving, stuck listening to his uncle’s legendary anecdotes for the thousandth time.
Clearly, Steadman has plenty to say that I am interested in hearing. His deep sense of outrage at social injustice informs his work, and belies his soft-spoken exterior. There is no denying the power of his art and even the terrible soundtrack cannot keep a montage of his many protest cartoons from hitting the viewer.
The film begins as a more traditional artist documentary – showing Steadman at work in his studio – and watching his technique is worth watching the film. He really does start with his signature paint splatter and then lets the organic form dictate the direction of the artwork. He cites Frances Bacon as an influence and that painter’s sense of formal composition juxtaposed with lurid brutality is striking in the portrait that Steadman paints in the first scenes. He layers different materials, then draws with a tool that strategically strips them away.
If you are only familiar with his early career cartoons, or his Flying Dog beer labels, it’s very eye opening to see one of his more recent paintings. They’re truly remarkable. Also, a series in which he snaps Polaroid portraits then while they’re still warm, distorts them, is extremely fun to watch. These photo paintings are certainly compelling relations to Andy Warhol’s work.
Overall, though, I would have liked the balance of the film to tip towards Steadman’s artistic process. Instead, his proximity to other, more famous people, from Hunter S. Thompson to Johnny Depp, diluted the message. There was a subtext that suggested Steadman deserved greater attention, which was then subverted by the film’s focus on others. If the soft-spoken yet brilliant, subversive and angry artist Steadman deserves his due, I’m afraid we’re still waiting.
“No Good Reason” is currently available to rent.