Anthony Bourdain was a wiseass with the soul of a poet. He was the tough guy who seemingly did it all, a veteran of the New York kitchen scene and recovering drug addict turned late bloomer who wrote a bestseller at the cusp of middle age and went on to host empathetic travel shows. He saw and ate everything the world has to offer while writing books with a propulsive and atmospheric beat style that suggests a merging of the proses of George Orwell, Jim Thompson and Charles Bukowski.
Throughout his whirlwind ascension as a cultural touchstone, Bourdain even pulled off the celebrity’s greatest and most precarious hat trick: He remained edgy, live-wire and relatable. He never seemed too pampered or comfortable, never jumped the shark or appeared to sell out.
Given that he seemed to have the coolest job in the world as the host of “No Reservations” and later “Parts Unknown,” enjoying the sort of adoration which most people only fantasize about, Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018 at 61 was a particular shock, an especially cutting perversity that testifies to the private weight that everyone – regardless of income, fame, looks and sexual popularity – must carry.
Morgan Neville’s documentary-slash-tribute-slash-deconstruction, “Roadrunner: a Film About Anthony Bourdain,” is intensely, unavoidably haunted by death then, and this obsessiveness allows the production to transcend its potential clip-show vibe.
Given that Bourdain had been famous and relentlessly filmed for nearly 20 years before his death, Neville has a wealth of aural-visual material. The director melds footage of the TV shows with more personal vignettes that fill in emotions and attitudes that seem to have existed between the lines of Bourdain’s public work. Though Neville offers little that refutes the image of Bourdain that’s generally known and revered, he complicates Bourdain for us, showing the demons that existed in plain sight, which were so easily ignored in favor of the wish fulfillment that the man’s adventures and success provided.
For instance, Neville includes a great and disturbing moment between Bourdain and the chef David Chang. The two guys are talking in a restaurant and Bourdain is irritated by the cameras, asking the operators why this moment should matter. He seems enraged and this brief outburst encapsulates the trap of fame as a state of endless speculation and surveillance. Throughout the film, Bourdain’s anger is explored by other interviewees who suggest that the kitchen was this recovering heroin addict’s true sanctuary and place of balance. Travel, while exhilarating, left him untethered.
Neville contextualizes Bourdain’s shows as unintentional expressions of their star’s misery. It’s a shock to revisit “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” and to see that Bourdain, while charming, humble and in the moment, never seems authentically happy. His eyes are drawn and guarded and he often seems frazzled. His search for extreme states – eating rare food and jumping off cliffs, journeying to dangerous places in the Congo and the Middle East –suggest a new addiction as well as a discomfort with stasis that would end two marriages. Bourdain’s second wife, Octavia Busia, is interviewed and she clearly still is in pain.
“Roadrunner” is edgier and nervier than you’d expect of a testimonial documentary, as Neville fashions his clips into a biodrama slipstream that honors Bourdain’s caustic restlessness. Neville understands an element of addiction that eludes most filmmakers: the need for many in recovery to re-channel that obsessive energy. Bourdain jumped from one thing to another – the kitchen, the writing, the shows, and even jujitsu via Busia.
Like many people in recovery and wrestling with depression, Neville’s Bourdain suggests a cipher desperately searching for a skin that fits. Tragically, he didn’t seem able to recognize his inherent distinctiveness. Bourdain’s last obsession, controversially, was with his girlfriend Asia Argento, whose accusations of rape against Harvey Weinstein inspired him to become a fervent MeToo activist. Perhaps too fervent: Bourdain’s rhapsodic praise of Argento’s parking skills, for Christ’s sake, clearly turn her off. The bad boy was succumbing to puppy love and “Roadrunner” includes chilling footage of how that infatuation changed Bourdain’s professional behavior, driving him to be more dictatorial and less inquisitive on “Parts Unknown.”
“Roadrunner” does not blame Argento for Bourdain’s death, as some touchy critics have implied. Neville’s sensitivity does lead to one pulled punch, as this film neglects to mention that Argento, for all her public sanctimony, paid off a minor she is alleged to have sexually assaulted herself. No, “Roadrunner” isn’t about Asia Argento, but this lurid incident practically begs for acknowledgement, especially considering Bourdain’s jealousy over Argento as well as their MeToo partnership.
Otherwise, “Roadrunner” is a hearty and thorny portrait of a man who managed for a time to hold his demons at bay, fashioning art that made humanism seem, well, cool. He walked in the shoes of others without apology or sermonizing. Bourdain is still an inspiration, especially for those of us who are nearing his age at the time of his breakthrough with the book “Kitchen Confidential.”