For as celebrated a writer as Hunter S. Thompson is, his pungent prose might not have become as iconic if it wasn’t for the wonderfully lurid drawings that accompanied it. Created by artist Ralph Steadman and incorporating ink splatters and ghoulish countenances, these illustrations brought Thompson’s inspired ramblings to life, upping the words’ paranoia and vividness. But while Thompson, who’s been dead for nine years, remains immortalized, Steadman doesn’t have as high a media profile. You know the artwork even if you don’t know the man.
For No Good Reason hopes to correct that imbalance, steadfastly singing Steadman’s praises. But this documentary’s presentation is off-putting enough that it does more harm than good. Steadman comes across as a smart, interesting-enough fellow, but director Charlie Paul adopts an air of mannered eccentricity that’s meant to mirror the artist’s disturbingly offbeat drawings. Better that For No Good Reason had simply stood back and let Steadman’s work stand on its own considerable merits.
The documentary is framed around a visit by Johnny Depp to Steadman’s home. A longtime friend of Thompson who played a version of the author in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Depp is close to Steadman as well, so the hope is that their exchanges will be looser and more engaging than the typical talking-head interview. But Depp’s onscreen presence doesn’t add much to the proceedings: With his typical arch-Zen remove, the actor fawns over Steadman’s work as he’s creating it, but there’s not much insight to be found. You wish that Paul had focused more on Steadman himself as he explains his instinctive process, which can be quite illuminating. (For instance, a violent explosion of paint on paper may suggest to Steadman an animal or a human face, which he’ll then try to pull out of the seemingly shapeless color blob with additional brushstrokes and fiddling.)
Along the same lines, Paul’s attempts to dramatize Steadman’s rise to fame alongside Thompson are engaging, but only to a point. For No Good Reason is a fan letter both to Steadman and Thompson, and consequently we’re treated to a trip down memory lane as gonzo journalism is venerated one more time. It’s not that the two men’s achievements don’t deserve accolades, but For No Good Reason struggles to find the last bit of meat on some fairly picked-over bones. Steadman’s gentlemanly British reserve and Thompson’s irascible wit made them an unlikely, entertaining duo when they went on the road together to do a story, but Steadman’s (and others’) nostalgic recollections get puréed until they resemble a greatest-hits reel of progressive political protest.
So, consider For No Good Reason a passable history lesson, and try to ignore Sacha Skarbek’s combative score and the only-moderately-enlightening celebrity well-wishers, including Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner (whose magazine helped launch Thompson and Steadman) and actor Richard E. Grant (whose Withnail & I got its glorious poster art from Steadman). But even with those caveats, the documentary is a frustrating combination of glossed-over biography and overly hip approximation of the genuinely upsetting and challenging art Steadman has made his legacy. (That art continued after Steadman’s partnership with Thompson ended. He provocatively attacked Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, and then later created an illustrated edition of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451.)
There’s no questioning the love that Paul and his interview subjects feel about Steadman. But For No Good Reason’s problem isn’t a dearth of adoration—it’s a lack of discipline and perspective. That’s doubly ironic considering how Steadman turned the chaos he saw around him into illustrations in which the unruly suddenly came into powerful focus.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Charlie Paul
Starring: Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Richard E. Grant, Terry Gilliam, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Jann Wenner, Hal Wilner
Release Date: Apr. 25, 2014