The Stew Review: Anthony Bourdain documentary a moving portrait despite shortcomings

Anthony Bourdain is the subject of documentarian Morgan Neville's latest film, "Roadrunner: A...
Anthony Bourdain is the subject of documentarian Morgan Neville's latest film, "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain."(Focus Features)
Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 9:31 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, for the majority of its nearly two-hour runtime, is an often moving, warts-and-all portrait of a complex man who both was and was not the personality that millions watched travel the world.

Director Morgan Neville’s film gives a largely unbridled look at the way the late Anthony Bourdain unwittingly went from exposing the dark underbelly of restaurant kitchens into fostering an entire career that became as much about examining the human condition as it was about eating exotic food. Roadrunner isn’t what one would declare to be a definitive examination of Bourdain as it all but ignores his life before reality television came calling. But as a film that digs into the question of “Why would a guy like Anthony Bourdain spend half his life on television?” it’s a fairly thorough, albeit problematic, examination.

And that question does seem to be one worth asking. Bourdain’s nature as an acerbic, brash, occasionally crass, personality seems like the complete opposite of what some would consider to be a foundational source for years worth of television programming that would come to be considered beloved, even inspirational, by countless viewers the world over. This seems like the perfect time to note that I was one such viewer. I’ve watched nearly every single TV episode Bourdain ever filmed (A Cook’s Tour, his first show, is hard to find so I’m more than a bit behind on that one). I’ve read his breakout book, Kitchen Confidential. And I wept on the day the news broke about his death by suicide. Bourdain’s work through No Reservations and Parts Unknown had become beacons of comfort and inspiration for me, especially over the last several years when it began to feel like empathy for anyone beyond our national borders grew more and more scarce. There was nowhere, literally nowhere, in the world where he would go and wouldn’t find something and someone worth lifting up and showing the best of. He saw beauty and grace no matter where he traveled.

It’s clear Neville himself was similarly impacted and thus goes to great lengths in this attempt to unravel the knot that was Bourdain, interviewing everyone from the producers who first put him on television to Bourdain’s second wife to the various chefs, artists and musicians he considered friends or peers. All of them remember the man in a largely similar way: What you saw on-camera was very much who he was, albeit amplified. Yet he also relished his time off-camera both because he was often fairly shy and taciturn, and also because it allowed for a brief respite from the perpetual grind of traveling and filming more nearly 300 days a year.

What’s somewhat frustrating, however, is that the film doesn’t really reveal much in the way of new or enlightening information about Bourdain, at least if you’re already a fan or follower of his work. Such, I suppose, is one of the challenges of documenting a life already thoroughly documented. There is little to chew on here that one wouldn’t also gather from watching a half dozen or so curated episodes of his shows, or in his writing. But if you, unlike me, aren’t terribly familiar with Bourdain, then Roadrunner will provide a succinct primer.

Neville’s real sin, however, is in how he handles the topic of Bourdain’s death. His suicide, more specifically, and what may (or may not) have lead to it.

Roadrunner is not shy about the topic of Bourdain’s death. The film is, arguably, entirely centered around the subject, often in the form of Bourdain’s own words. He had no qualms joking about death, about killing himself. Often it comes across as simply his own morbid sense of humor and the fact that he often enjoyed making others feel uncomfortable. Bourdain also had an addictive personality, kicking a heroin addiction and, as the film and its interviewees suggest, simply substituted drugs for whatever would become his new, immediate obsession. This would range from movies to studying and practicing jiu-jitsu.

This all comes to a head once Neville begins to touch on the subject of Asia Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend at the time of his death. Estranged from his wife, Bourdain and Argento dated for about two years. Over that span she became more and more involved in the production and crafting of Parts Unknown, much to the distaste of Bourdain’s longtime production crew. Neither the crew interviewed nor Neville himself ever explicitly blame Argento for driving Bourdain to suicide, but that’s practically a technicality given the presentation. Neville at one point has someone very directly state that Bourdain was solely responsible, but it almost feels as though Neville inserted the statement to cover his own legal hide as much as anything resembling a fair portrait. The insinuation is made all the more frustrating given that, according to his own statement in an interview, Neville didn’t even attempt to interview Argento.

Thankfully, this material makes up a relatively minor portion of the film. The way it’s handled isn’t enough to make me steer anyone away from it, but it is something viewers should very much be prepared for.

Ultimately, Roadrunner is worth a watch. It may not present much new, but I must admit it was still a joy for me to be able to watch one of my heroes on the big screen and to hear people who loved him speak so fondly about their time with him.

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