“Romantic” is the term that gets thrown around the most in Roadrunner, the documentary about late chef, author, host and all-around culinary nomad Anthony Bourdain. The man who opened up top-grade kitchens to the world, then opened up the world to a viewing public, had a “romantic” view of life. He was a “classic romantic.” That kind of thing. Director Morgan Neville tends to unpack this in details: The single gold hoop earring Bourdain wore is traced to pirate fantasies, put in motion by a kitchen knife duel; drugs and booze are the gateway to rock star writer cool, on display through Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Iggy Pop. What Roadrunner does well is show how these romantic notions helped drive Bourdain to his most curious and open-eyed peaks and his most disillusioned, depressive lows. Even if a third act turn momentarily warps its close-knit mass of talking heads and archival footage towards a spiteful fit of mudslinging, Roadrunner’s painful imperfections only reveal how deeply Bourdain left his mark.
One of the benefits of making a movie about someone who spent the last few decades of their life being constantly filmed is that you’re never at a loss for footage. Neville digs deep, mapping out an archival road from Bourdain’s sexy bad boy Kitchen Confidential press tour—when the rail-thin, charismatic chainsmoker was quipping on talk shows and still working as a chef—to his final days doing Parts Unknown—when living a constantly televised life had him burned out. It’s a staggeringly thorough account, one that’s sheer depth encourages empathy. It seems terrible to live like that, knowing those closest to you through the impenetrable filter of a camera lens. It’s bittersweet that most of the talking heads that know him best are his production team. Sure, a few chef and musician friends Bourdain bonded with (David Chang, Josh Homme and David Choe among others) pop up, but the most intense details of daily life come from coworkers.
Through their contributions, the sad-eyed Bourdain we see as scenes are ending or in private moments is elucidated. Those who’ve read Kitchen Confidential won’t be surprised at the doc’s explanations of Bourdain’s self-loathing dissatisfaction, costumed by fame and aggravated by the always-transferable self-destructive knack for addiction. But they will get an even more intimate view of Bourdain the person, the dad, the TV micromanager. It’s endearing and understandably, often amusingly, hard-edged. The transition from shy chef with a distinctive authorial voice to international flâneur with a populist chip on his shoulder only makes sense because of the no-bullshit throughline sustained in Neville’s tapestry of outtakes and clips. That attitude couldn’t be masked by the façade put up by the hardline, dream-chasing, never-satisfied food punk. The film clips interwoven with interviews, implying Bourdain’s idealized adventurous life with Apocalypse Now scenes, are just another methodological way to understand Bourdain’s suicide.
Perhaps that’s why the last third of the film feels like a targeted takedown of actress/director Asia Argento, whom Bourdain dated leading up to his death. Argento took over a Hong Kong shoot of Parts Unknown so that Bourdain could finally have some semblance of work/life balance (by smashing them together, as any true workaholic would), and it was—to hear the production team tell it and to see the behind-the-scenes footage Neville pieces together—a clusterfuck. Only someone far too smitten would let a newcomer—an outsider—come in and screw up the good thing they had going, the doc tells us. And it is bad, no doubt about that. But she’s not only dragged professionally, but personally: Argento introducing Bourdain to the #MeToo movement, which Bourdain became deeply involved with, is shown as the final stage of his final addiction. At the bottom of this, Argento’s tabloid-captured infidelity is given to us as Bourdain’s catalyst to suicide. Unsurprisingly, Argento did not participate in Roadrunner.
It’s only natural for a documentary about a person who killed himself to listen to those close to him speculate on that big, haunting, omnipresent “Why?” And, though there’s certainly some hedging, the film and its participants have mostly chosen their answer. It’s a harsh derailment of the film, off on a kind of TMZ witch hunt. But when that self-assuredness falls away and those that knew Bourdain consider their loss and regret at the void he’s left in their lives, that’s far more powerful—and better filmmaking to boot. Their raw tears and pain are the most convincing part of the film, helping to explain the anger and reminding us of how fresh this wound is for them. Roadrunner was announced, after all, only a year after Bourdain’s death.
The inherently unfulfilling search for answers was never going to be Roadrunner’s strength. That it gives so much time to it feels like the kind of exploitation that it so deftly avoids for most of its runtime. In truth, this isn’t a movie about understanding why—a question that desperately wants an easy answer to a complicated problem—but about understanding Bourdain. Appreciating him. Mourning him. To that end, Roadrunner succeeds once the mythologizing dies down and we see the person inside the romantic.
Director: Morgan Neville
Release Date: July 16, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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