Amiable isn’t how one would describe the work of Ralph Steadman, renowned for his political and social caricatures and collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson, though it does accurately characterize the man himself. Witty, occasionally caustic, but never less than gracious, Steadman freely expounds on his profoundly volatile work throughout Charlie Paul’s For No Good Reason, which is at its most purposeful simply when it focuses on the organic process through which its subject finds inspiration for his radical provocations in paint chaotically streaked across white canvas paper. “Authority is the mask of violence,” he says, not so fondly remembering a brutal spell at his grammar school in the 1940s and revealing that his art, which he wields as a weapon, is a means for him to get back at that authority. It’s an arresting personal confession, though this documentary portrait of an artist as an old man mostly illuminates Steadman’s process not through his memories of growing up but through his relationship to Thompson, who haunts the film through a plethora of home-video clips that Paul incorporates into a hectic aesthetic that ultimately feels like a feeble approximation to that of his subject.
Because of his own friendship with Thompson, vintage-store-explosion survivor and kindred gonzo spirit Johnny Depp serves as the audience’s intermediary at Steadman’s manse in the English countryside. But as he smokes and sips coffee, sometimes booze, listening politely as the artist reminisces about his life and career, the actor turns out to be the least of the film’s distractions. Paul isn’t content to let his stock footage and interviewees lead for him, and no doubt inspired by Steadman’s manipulation of Polaroids during a project for Richard E. Grant, he’s likewise driven to “make something out of a frame of mind,” though to needlessly busy effect. He uses a toy plane to convey Steadman’s arrival in the States, projects his archival footage on an old-timey TV set, and adds layer upon layer of Photoshop-grade effects to his talking heads as if to suggest a work of art that Steadman might have blown paint onto. By a certain point, it’s tempting to view the documentary’s overly constructed and cloyingly literal imagery, so relentlessly scored to tunes from hip, motley young bands, as an admission of guilt, a rebuttal to a humble Steadman’s belief that he will one day be remembered only as a “visual polluter.”