In hindsight, the opening voiceover of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain contains its thesis. In these first seconds, Bourdain says he’s not going to tell us how to live our lives; rather, he simply got lucky.
Considering that Morgan Neville’s most famous documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, created a “be like Mister Rogers” phenomenon, it seems Neville is setting up Bourdain as an anti-exemplar and cautionary tale.
To judge from the contents of this film, the director isn’t wrong. Bourdain entered life’s lottery with enviable gifts. He was highly intelligent, literate, and witty. He had countless friends, loving wives, a charming daughter. His parents “committed the unpardonable sin of loving me.” He got to travel the world in ways most of us can only dream.
Yet, none of this was good enough for this master of self-sabotage. Bourdain was cruel and brusque with friends and lovers. He never learned the art of contentment, nor matured past striving for romantic Hollywood perfection. Tragically, despite all his strengths, Bourdain considered himself unlovable, but never slowed down enough to interrogate this belief. His suicide comes across as a pointless, retributive reaction to narcissistic injury.
Such a character study will probably disappoint (if not infuriate) Bourdain’s fanbase, those who sparked to his openness to experience and bottomless snark. But Neville appears to have done his homework in marshaling a reputable band of commentators: his brother, his wife Ottavia, his literary agent, co-creators of his TV shows, and numerous friends. Nearly all of them fight tears as they recount Bourdain’s final months, still raw from his death three years later.
Unlike most biographical documentaries, Neville doesn’t dwell on Bourdain’s formative years. Roadrunner opens in 1999, as the 43-year-old chef from NYC’s Les Halles is about to become a celebrity on the strength of his bestselling Kitchen Confidential. After wooing audiences on the talk show circuit, he earned his first television gig, with A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network.
It seems the camera was always rolling, as we see plenty of footage from his journeys round the world, some that made it onto his shows and plenty from behind the scenes. Surprisingly, Bourdain had not been an avid traveler prior to his fame, but he was fearless about spending time in strife-torn and poverty-hobbled regions. His increasingly nuanced understanding of the world is mirrored in the evolution of his concluding voiceovers, as they morph from rosy summaries into open-ended statements.
It’s interesting to note how Neville adapts his style to his subject. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was gently paced, full of soft white backgrounds, and never rose above a mid-decibel level. By contrast, Roadrunner is loud and choppily edited, befitting Bourdain’s restless, stimuli-seeking temperament.
Neville is mostly responsible in handling Bourdain’s final months. However, Neville gives his commentators too much latitude in dumping blame on Asia Argento for Bourdain’s terminal implosion.* One gets the impression that the chef and his final girlfriend were too compatible in their damaged characters, their insatiable need for attention and their incapacity to sustain a healthy relationship. Their romance couldn’t last, but Argento didn’t kill Bourdain. He managed that all by himself.
Though one can’t fully predict how a despondent person will respond to any media content, I feel Neville successfully anti-glamorizes Bourdain’s suicide. The focus is rightly on the wreckage he left behind, as well as the wonderful things he’s missed by checking out early.
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )
*In writing my review, I’d wrongly assumed that Argento had declined to be interviewed for this film, but multiple articles are now stating that Neville chose not to speak with her. This makes the final 30 minutes of Roadrunner even more problematic than I’d originally contended.