Even if you are unfamiliar with the name Ralph Steadman, at some point you have come across his work as a cartoonist. Over the last 40 years, his singular style of grotesque caricature coupled with shotgun blasts of ink flecked onto the canvas have adorned numerous magazines, books, film posters, newspapers, and, most recently, beer bottles. He has been long overdue for the portrait-of-an-artist documentary treatment, and thankfully that has been addressed (mostly) in Charlie Paul’s reportedly 15-years-in-the-making For No Good Reason.
Steadman had a long collaboration with the late writer Hunter S. Thompson, illustrating the majority of Thompson’s gonzo journalism, in fact basically visualizing that early-Seventies movement. So it goes without saying that a film about Steadman must also be a secondhand film about Thompson, and unfortunately, most of the film’s running time is devoted to their relationship. It’s too bad, really, because Steadman is a fascinating guy in his own right. In the only discussion about his childhood, he relates a story about an oppressive headmaster at his school becoming a key figure in his later beliefs as a staunch anti-authoritarian. It is riveting stuff, the kind of experience you see shaping an artist, a person. But it comes too late to have any impact.
Still, even with those structural cracks and the inclusion of Hunter S. Thompson’s pal Johnny Depp as the film’s onscreen guide, For No Good Reason comes alive whenever the camera sits back and records Steadman attacking a blank piece of paper. His creative process is captivating to watch: the way his wrist twitches just so at the end of a line, how he blows ink through a straw across the canvas creating unforeseen depth, his technique of scratching into deep layers of paint to discover something unexpected. The man has obviously mastered his anarchic and irreverent method, and that is more than worth the price of admission. It’s a shame then that this portrait is paradoxically so narrowly focused. If Paul had distanced Steadman a bit more out of Thompson’s shadow, a more complete understanding of the artist might have emerged. Instead of embracing the chaotic discovery that Steadman personifies, the film ends up being merely a paint-by-numbers.