Trigger warning: For No Good Reason, a film about British cartoonist Ralph Steadman, prominently features that anthropomorphic tangle of beads and neckerchiefs, Johnny Depp. The formerly talented indie darling cum smirking heartthrob of contemporary pirate cinema serves as a guide through this out-of-the-can portrait of an artist.
Director Charlie Paul even grants privileged access into Depp’s interiority, allowing the viewer to wade ankle-deep in his shallow intuitions and half-formed thoughts. “I’m really looking forward to catching up with [Steadman] at his studio,” Depp says early in the film, as if something that tantalizes Johnny Depp should immediately entice the viewer.
For sure, Steadman is a worthy subject of a documentary. A talented cartoonist, he’s known first for giving illustrated life to “gonzo journalist” Hunter S. Thompson’s writing, and second as a critic in his own right. His splattered images of human savagery and viciousness inherit a legacy of social grotesquerie that runs through Leonardo da Vinci and Francis Bacon.
Unfortunately, For No Good Reason sidelines Steadman’s own bona fides, functioning primarily as a second-hand documentary of Thompson, stoking the hagiography of the late hipster icon.
Even in its liveliest segments, For No Good Reason uses Steadman’s art as an adjunct to Thompson’s. Depp – who has twice played Thompson on screen – provides clipped, stony readings of the author’s prose as Steadman’s snarling, ink-splatter whatzits churn to life on screen, animating the pair’s quasi-journalistic escapades to “cover” the Kentucky Derby, the Rumble in the Jungle, the gambling floors of Sin City and elsewhere.
Steadman dutifully notes that, beyond the occasional drunken lost weekend, he never shared his collaborator’s famously heroic metabolism for hard drugs. It makes for a nice image: the hard-partying, balls-tripping writer accompanied by the squat, soberish-second-thought guy (“Like chalk and cheese,” Steadman calls it).
But in place of Thompson’s stream of stoned, frequently exhilarating, intermittently perceptive prose is Steadman’s withering contemptuousness. Thompson revelled in life’s many opportunities for depravity and reprobate behaviour. Steadman seems to genuinely loathe (and, sure, fear) the depraved reprobates. Of an early photographic expedition to New York, Steadman says he was drawn toward skid row as a “museum of misery and deprivation,” sounding like a stunned high-schooler who has never seen a homeless person before.
(Steadman produced a year-end 2013 cover illustration for the Toronto alt-weekly Now, which imagined Mayor Rob Ford as a fleshy pig in a suit and tie.)
Steadman’s temperament is defined by an adolescent acuity for the “weirdness” of American life and the institutions of power. Ditto his approach to his work. “I needed to apply it as a weapon,” Steadman says of his early artistic ambitions, echoing Picasso’s and summing up the motivations of generations of satirists, artists and political cartoonists – any doodler who got his start scribbling devil horns on the head of the homeroom teacher.
Less trite than Steadman’s evaluations of his work is the work itself: exciting, ugly and easily identifiable by Pollackian streaks of India ink and an unblinking embrace of unpleasantness. Scenes of Steadman slogging in his studio, accompanied by the artist’s thoughts on his heroes (Picasso, Bacon, Rembrandt) offer a reprieve to the warmed-over social commentary.
But they’re too few and far between. And they’re invariably marred by cut-in shots of Depp hauling on bespoke cigarettes and cheering, “Wow! That’s incredible!,” as if we’ll all be similarly bowled over, just because Willy Wonka 2.0 says so.
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