Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. Focus Features releases the film in theaters on Friday, July 16.
From the early days of his breakthrough exposé “Kitchen Confidential” through the TV adventures of “No Reservations” that ended with his suicide, Anthony Bourdain lived hard and fast to explore the world without an iota of bullshit. On camera, his punk rock attitude complemented his baritone declarations at every turn, and fueled globe-trotting journeys that wrestled unfamiliar cultures into intimate experiences. His abrupt suicide in 2018, in the midst of filming a new episode in northeastern France, had a terrible kind of logic to it because Bourdain’s uncompromising spirit meant that he would always have the last word.
All of which creates intimidating expectations for “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” documentarian Morgan Neville’s enthralling deep-dive into the mystique of a man so keen on exploring and explaining the world around him that he barely had time to explore himself. With its dense assemblage of archival materials and candid talking heads, “Roadrunner” gets the job done, yielding a tough, infuriating tribute to Bourdain’s ineffable genius and the tragic inclinations that came out of it.
“Roadrunner” doesn’t match the brilliance of watching Bourdain do his work, though Neville has assembled an emotional investigation into the toll of his career. If you felt like you knew Bourdain from his TV presence, “Roadrunner” confirms it: He put everything he had onscreen to the detriment of everything — and everyone — else in his life. And yet no camera could capture the turmoil he suffered through it all, as he put himself on display while endangering his own sustainability.
That much is clear from an eerie opening segment of old material that finds Bourdain on a beach, mulling for the camera about what he wants to happen when he dies. He doesn’t want a big show, he says, “unless it could provide entertainment value.”
Neville provides just that. Much as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” demystified the human behind the pop culture phenomenon of Fred Rogers, “Roadrunner” pushes for the kind of intimate portrait that its subject would never have allowed. The result is a complex, at times meandering and often troublesome look at the way that Bourdain found his way into show business through the distinctive nature of his persona without every clarifying his priorities. It leaves some issues on the table and enters ethically questionable territory when parsing the motivation of his suicide, but moves with such compulsive energy and detail that Neville turns the quest into an infectious plunge.
“Roadrunner” doesn’t spend much time explaining Bourdain’s earliest days. Instead, it dives into the key turning points in his professional rise, beginning with the publication of “Kitchen Confidential” when he still wore the apron at legendary New York brasserie Les Halles. The chain-smoking vulgarian paces about as early editors and collaborators discuss his insuppressible attitude and incredulous response to the sudden attention. When the world swarmed in — his baffled look during an “Oprah” appearance is a great punchline — Bourdain entered a lifelong attempt to reconcile industrial forces with his combustible persona. Cooks like him, he says in one early interview, “don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.”
Neville constructs a crash course in the organic evolution of Bourdain’s groundbreaking blend of travel journalism, culinary exploration, and social inquiry. Talking heads ranging from his longtime producers to pals like David Chang explain the nature of Bourdain’s hubris and wit as a singular package. “Every episode” of his show, one colleague says, “potentially had his wrath.” The movie tracks how Bourdain’s persistent quest for authenticity led him to keep widening his perspective, as journeys to war-torn countries like Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of Congo made him push for a grander altruistic agenda. In the process, the rush of possibilities came at the expense of his attempt to maintain a stable family life, and the frank admissions from widow Ottavia Busia-Bourdain drive home the idea that Bourdain’s astounding personal drive was also his Achilles’ heel. All that brand-building steamrolled his desire for a comfortable life. As he says in one jolting outtake from the show: “How normal could I ever hope to be?”
As Bourdain’s personal problems take shape, “Roadrunner” careens from a lively character study into a softer, sadder portrait of an alienated figure who sealed his own fate. Like Bourdain himself, the filmmaking occasionally veers into overstatement, as when it intersperses footage from “Apocalypse Now” to underscore the psychological unease of his Congo trip. But the excessive narratives strategies make sense in the context of a drama in which the subject cast himself as a larger-than-life figure too vast for anyone to rein in, including himself.
“Roadrunner” enters dicey territory during its final act, as it delves into Bourdain’s relationship with actress Asia Argento, who’s absent from the movie as a participant but appears in ample documentary footage. By all indications, Argento brought Bourdain to a new plane of happiness in his final months, when he hired her to direct an episode in Hong Kong shortly before his death. It also gave him a renewed sense of purpose as he became a public voice in the #MeToo scandal with Argento’s revelations about being raped by Harvey Weinstein. “Roadrunner,” however, bursts the sunny image of Bourdain’s new partner with claims from his former collaborators that he cut them off in the midst of the relationship; then, the movie goes one step further, by hinting at the idea that his suicide was an erratic act of revenge as the romance went south. Despite one subject who makes it clear Argento isn’t truly to blame — Tony killed himself, after all — it’s still a queasy passage that comes dangerously close to exploiting the scenario with a murky explanation assembled from secondhand accounts.
However, Neville is on steady ground when assessing the larger cloud of discontent that hung over Bourdain since his heroin days, a shadow of addiction he never quite cast off. The filmmaker excels at building these passages into the story without allowing them to hijack the bigger picture: Bourdain was a total mess, but damn did he make the most of it.
A modern-day Icarus who thrived on flying too close to the sun, Bourdain was a creature of cinema — his best shows were inspired by it — and Neville completes that quest with aplomb. “Roadrunner” is ultimately about a guy who couldn’t slow down enough to clarify his tremendous talent. But through that struggle, he unleashed an infectious curiosity that transcended every possible category the world tried to put him in. He was his own worst enemy and his greatest advocate. “Roadrunner” exists in that troubling paradox. It’s the kind of tension Bourdain thrived on: Steeped in bleak implications, “Roadrunner” manages, against all odds, to be a good time.
“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Focus Features releases it theatrically on July 16.
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