The work of artist, cartoonist, and illustrator Ralph Steadman may be familiar even to those who don’t know him by name: His swoop- and splatter-filled art has graced many pages of Rolling Stone, and often accompanied the writing of his most famous collaborator, the late Hunter S. Thompson. The documentary For No Good Reason offers a primer of sorts on Steadman’s life and career, with and apart from Thompson. Charlie Paul’s film joins the artist in his home studio—and manages to stay there without feeling claustrophobic. The use of still photos, archival videos, and drawings that spring into new animation make the movie feel like it’s unfolding in Steadman’s personal space, somewhere between his head and the page. Even in rote shots of his art supplies, shallow focus keeps the space unclear, making the studio look vaster than it really is.
Planting the camera in one location is a clever limitation that Paul doesn’t maintain, not completely: A few brief re-enactments take the film outside of Steadman’s home, and Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner must be indulged and endured as one of a handful of talking-head bits. All of the talking-head footage appears distorted and projected over other media (magazine pages and so on), as if the filmmakers are ashamed to admit they conducted conventional interviews. Their instincts to shy away from this footage are spot on, and for the most part Steadman’s life is reflected through art, materials, and accessories that he might plausibly have on hand at any given time.
These accessories include world-famous movie star Johnny Depp, a friend of Steadman’s whose visit to his office frames the film. Depp doesn’t seek to overshadow the doc’s subject. He has enough screen time to justify any marketing claims that the film “features” him, while spending most of that time listening; about half of his dialogue with Steadman consists of the word “yeah.” But even with Depp on the margins, For No Good Reason, for better and worse, feels a bit like a postscript to the actor’s Hunter S. Thompson chronicles. Thompson appears less extreme with each entry, from the hallucinatory excess of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas to the merely drunken Rum Diary to this film, where he’s a colorful supporting character in an artist’s life story.
For No Good Reason depicts the relationship between Thompson and Steadman as a series of outlandish if affectionate phone calls, and Thompson’s side of the conversation is delivered through no fewer than three different voices: his own, in home-movie footage; Depp’s imitation, as he reads from Thompson’s writing; and Steadman’s own, relatively decent imitation. The interplay is touching, but it fails to keep the movie from becoming less interesting as it stretches to feature length, sometimes resembling a handsomely illustrated CV. The case for Steadman as a countercultural revolutionary is made lightly and vaguely, often via caricatures of Richard Nixon that surely delight Wenner but fail to say anything specific. Early on, Steadman talks about his humor needing to have a “slightly maniacal” edge. For No Good Reason has no such thing; it’s gently informative and amusing the whole way through.