Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)
If there’s any good reason to go see For No Good Reason, it’s the chance to see an extended slideshow of some of Ralph Steadman’s more provocative paintings.
Sure, you know who this guy is. His illustrations have probably even made an appearance in your nightmares at some point. Grotesque, emotionally raw and occasionally quite graphic, the splatter-art that has defined a couple of Hunter S. Thompson novels and the subsequent cinematic adaptations thereof has been a phenomenon you can’t quite ignore. The 78-year-old artist is simply too prolific. He has illustrated children’s books almost as much as he has detailed horrific imagery depicting some of the darkest corners of the human heart. While he has at times proven to be the voice of reason, other times he represents chaos and disorder, using his unique style to express deep frustration and even outrage at humanity’s capacity for evil, wrongdoing.
It is possible Steadman and his ideas are perhaps too big to fit into the home video format, which is essentially what For No Good Reason boils down to. His iconic work deserves much more detail and arguably even it’s own, separate film. Set Pink Floyd’s Saucerful of Secrets as the soundtrack to a collage of his best work, and you’re set; you have an instant classic on your hands. Neither the subject nor his art belong in a documentary quite as pedestrian as this. Director Charlie Paul and his wife, Lucy, a producer on the film, have good intentions, though, and they clearly revere the man and cherish the time they get to spend with him.
It’s certainly obvious what the film’s narrator — Hunter S. Thompson aficionado and puppeteer Johnny Depp — thinks, too. (Everything presented here is “amazing” to him. . .though he can’t really be faulted for saying the word over and over again, the work really is just that.) Ignoring all of the film’s blandness and a general failure to launch, the argument that the subject matter isn’t treated with respect cannot be made.
Any fan of the artiste or those with a general interest in the collaboration between Steadman and the father of gonzo journalism — a style of writing in which the narrator/author is not only spectator to the events surrounding him, but becomes a part of the drama himself, and writing from a point of view that’s not necessarily objective — will find themselves intrigued as Steadman regales the small camera crew that hangs about in his Kent, England home about a time in his life, something slightly more than a decade, that would prove to be both exciting and critical for his career. Touring the country with the crazed writer after bumping into him at the 1970 Kentucky Derby, Steadman would go on to experience great success as his frequent collaborations with Thompson gave him exposure he likely wouldn’t have received otherwise. In reflecting, Steadman’s nostalgia and passion for those days is palpable and these moments justify some of that ticket price.
But Johnny. . .oh Johnny: “Amazing.”
The documentary also is quite helpful in providing a first-hand account of how Steadman physically sets about creating his work. This is fascinating stuff as well. It could arguably be the main event. What blossoms out of a simple splattering of black paint is likely to leave the mind reeling. During this creative process the intimacy of the home video is actually beneficial. We always feel like we want to get closer to the artist and his canvas, and here we do.
Watching the soft-spoken Steadman go to work feels somewhat like a privilege, but elsewhere the production feels amateurish. The documentary doesn’t assume it’s audience has read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which seems a little counterintuitive since this documentary is all but catered to the fandom thereof. (Well, it’s not. It’s catered to the artwork. But the gonzo journalism-obsessives are likely to comprise the majority of the audience. This is a safe assumption, no?)
Outside of seeing the artist at work, there is not a great deal of payoff. Audiences paying to see this movie ought to have a decent background already on the Thompson-Steadman dynamic, but the Pauls make the mistake of assuming those in attendance haven’t yet accessed these beyond-ridiculous pages, this depraved adventure spewed forth from the collective minds of two men hell-bent on doing drugs and living the ‘American dream,’ as it were. There’s too much exposition and back-tracking, on top of a very awkward use of Depp. There’s a sense that we should all be paying more attention to this Hollywood celebrity more than the subject itself at times.
The film features additional interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), Richard E. Grant (Dracula), and Jann Wenner (Jerry Maguire) but their talking time is limited to unforgettable segments.
For No Good Reason means well, and it required a lot of effort and time to create. Apparently 15 years in the making, the final result unfortunately stoops to treating its audience as if it has deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts. Unless we have been casually sipping on gin and ingesting ether on a somewhat regular basis, there’s simply not enough here to justify a 90-minute production.
illustration for ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury
‘Queen and Alice,’ an illustration for Alice in Wonderland
Recommendation: Although fans of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalism, and Steadman’s unique art will undoubtedly find something to appreciate about the small window into the man’s life, this rather insignificant documentary ultimately comes off as slapdash, underserving both its subject and target audience by providing redundant information and failing to make proper use of Steadman’s utterly fascinating imagination. There are a few artistic flourishes throughout, but even these feel cheap and tacked-on. Somewhere out there lurks a better version of this film, and the faithful should stay vigilant for whatever that may be.
Running Time: 89 mins.
Quoted: “It’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads, but aren’t capable of getting it out.”
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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.ralphsteadman.com