movie review

The Anthony Bourdain Doc Roadrunner Can Be Invasive. Sometimes, It’s Worse.

This documentary about the life of the chef and travel-show host treats its subject like a mystery to be solved — and treats his death that way, too. Photo: Focus Features

Anthony Bourdain died by suicide on June 8, 2018, and half of the people interviewed in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain don’t seem like they’re ready to talk about it. Éric Ripert, who found his friend dead in Strasbourg, France, where the two were shooting an episode of Bourdain’s CNN series Parts Unknown, politely and firmly refuses to address the incident at all when the documentary reaches its last act. Roadrunner is a documentary about Bourdain’s life that is irrevocably overshadowed by his recent death — a standard-format talking heads and archival footage film that manages to feel unruly and raw and sometimes troubling. It’s more interesting than 99 percent of the biographical documentaries out there today, but the grief being showcased is so close to the surface, and the emotions still so unprocessed, that it can feel invasive. Sometimes, it feels worse than that — in deciding to treat his subject as a mystery he’s trying to solve, director Morgan Neville makes some ugly choices when it comes to that subject’s suicide, before veering off into a conclusion that’s more cathartic.

A certain degree of kamikaze honesty is, you could argue, in line with its subject, even if the results, in Roadrunner, sometimes go beyond messy into irresponsible. Bourdain — a chef who became a writer, a writer who became a TV host, and a TV host who got as close as a celebrity can to being universally beloved these days — had a pathological aversion to bullshit. His first burst of fame came from a book, Kitchen Confidential, that described the dysfunctional unseen ecosystem of high-end restaurants with a hilarious frankness, as well as a resolute affection. He made his way in front of the camera, but the back of the house, where things were actually cooked in cramped chaos, was where his heart remained throughout his career. His shows were made with the understanding that great meals were as likely to come from a roadside cart as a white-tablecloth joint, and they were founded (and sometimes cast doubt) on the power of food to bring people together. Bourdain had no desire to be placed on a pedestal, and that’s an impulse that’s all but built into the basic bio-doc, which is informed by a desire to reassure its audience that the person they’re watching a movie about was important enough to justify the run time. His life, with its abrupt end, doesn’t fit into the modified sine wave the formula demands — humble beginnings, slow rise, peak success, fall, then redemption or a reaffirming of legacy.

Neville, who got his start with episodes of Biography on A&E, and holds the current category box-office record with his bittersweet 2018 Mr. Rogers portrait, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is certainly conscious of this. It’s why, surely, he tries to frame his film as an investigation instead. Its earliest scenes contain a montage of its interviewees getting ready in front of the camera — a peek-behind-the-curtain trick that most docs use to create a sense of greater transparency, but that here has the feel of an impending interrogation. The montage ends with artist John Lurie questioning an offscreen Neville about how he expects to make a film about Bourdain when Bourdain “committed suicide, the fucking asshole.” “I want to make a film about why he was who he was,” Neville replies. But for most of Roadrunner, the distinction between portrait and investigation is negligible. The first two-thirds feel like a wake, and not in a regrettable way, with Bourdain’s friends and colleagues reminiscing and sharing fond and embarrassing memories of him.

His boss at Les Halles, Philippe Lajaunie, recalls learning that his executive chef had written a salty tell-all about the restaurant industry only around the time Kitchen Confidential hit the best-seller list. Bourdain’s creative partners, Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins, talk about recruiting him to shoot a food-and-travel series, only to discover how awkward he was in front of the camera. One of his regular cinematographers, Todd Liebler, recalls going to Beirut for No Reservations, only for the crew to find themselves at the start of the 2006 Lebanon War, holed up at a hotel pool while bombing took place outside. The episode became a formative one for Bourdain as an onscreen personality, the moment he started tilting toward bigger and more complicated stories, food often an entry point instead of the main point. Bourdain may have cut a swashbuckling figure, but he wasn’t prone to self-mythologizing, preferring to be up front about his own failings, fears, and dark moments — up to and including repeating discussions about mortality. The result is that the bulk of Roadrunner is warm, intimate, and unsurprising.

But when the film approaches the final years of Bourdain’s life, it starts to lose sight of him amid the sense of betrayal felt by so many people close to him. As it tries to piece together his mental and emotional state in the time leading up to his death, its attempts to find reasons for what happened next start settling helplessly around the messy figure of Asia Argento. Bourdain started dating the Italian actor and filmmaker in 2016, after the end of his marriage to Ottavia Busia, and was smitten, if also convinced, as musician Alison Mosshart recalls being told, that “it was going to end very, very badly.” Argento becomes the impetus for Bourdain losing his way, leading him to become outspoken on behalf of Me Too (a movement that’s treated with an odd ambivalence); he insisted Argento direct a Hong Kong–set episode of his show that went disastrously, and fired longtime collaborators when she didn’t like what they were doing. Or at least, that’s how events are recounted by everyone, except for Argento.

Argento, who was photographed holding hands with a French reporter a few days before Bourdain’s suicide, is not interviewed for the film, and Neville has since made it clear that he didn’t ask her to participate — a choice that feels irresponsible, to put it mildly, especially in light of the way she was targeted as responsible for Bourdain’s death by swaths of the public and media in the weeks after it happened. Argento is made into a receptacle for blame, without ever being given a chance to speak for herself onscreen. One of the interviewees finally declares, “Tony killed himself. Tony did it,” but only after the film notes that Bourdain’s last Instagram Story was set to music from Violent City, about a hit man in love with a faithless woman — too little, too late. There’s no “solving” someone’s suicide, and the implication that it’s possible is a deeply unhelpful way to treat self-harm. That late sequence gives you a sense that Neville’s responsibilities to his subject were outweighed by his desire to tell a neater narrative.

But then the film turns to artist David Choe, a fellow addict who sees himself as very much of a kind with his late friend. It’s Choe who points out that they both saw suffering as key to great art, a belief that can make you feel compelled to then seek out more pain. And it’s Choe who weeps freely on camera, and who says, devastatingly, that “he let me down” — a better encapsulation of the hurt that remains in Bourdain’s absence than all the implied accusations and quests for answers that precede it. Roadrunner may have been made too soon, and made with a misguided approach in mind, but in its closing moments, it manages a sudden magnificence in affirming that there’s no right way to mourn. Grief, in all of its ugly reality, is a part of life too, and there’s no tidying it up for the camera.

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Roadrunner Can Be Invasive. Sometimes, It’s Worse.