'Roadrunner' Peels Back to Show Anthony Bourdain’s Vulnerable Side in Emotional Journey (Review)

When Anthony Bourdain died in 2018, it felt like a shock to the world due to the weight of what he meant to so many people. He wasn't just a chef, obsessed with food. His books and television shows pulled the curtain down on the food universe, inspiring viewers to travel along the way. On his TV series like No Reservations and Parts Unknown, he put forth the theory that if everyone could come together at a dinner table and savor flavors from around the world, we might just have peace. But while Bourdain shared this universal idea through his unique, no-bullshit style, he struggled internally. Morgan Neville's Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain masterfully focuses on this central issue of Bourdain's fascinating life.

Roadrunner isn't a birth-to-death film, as much as it is a portrait of one of the most distinctive television talents to emerge in the 21st Century. It is a story on the cost of fame and how everyone handles the toll differently. The documentary focuses on the second act of Bourdain's life, after the unexpected success of his 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The book established Bourdain as the "bad boy" of the food world, thrusting him from this shy chef in the kitchen to an in-demand personality traveling around the world with an entire camera crew behind him.

roadrunner anthony bourdain
(Photo: Focus Features)

What makes Roadrunner fascinating here is seeing Bourdain's development into a television personality. It took him time to adapt his strengths as a writer to a medium that involves a visual element. If you only started watching Bourdain after Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations launched in 2005, seeing how difficult it was for him when filming A Cook's Tour four years earlier is astonishing. You see the creation of a personality unfolding.

There are many scenes of talking heads in Roadrunner, but Neville, who also directed Won't You Be My Neighbor?, uses plenty of narration from Bourdain himself. (Mostly... Neville told The New Yorker he used an AI program to create three recordings of Bourdain quotes he couldn't find real recordings of Bourdain reading.) It's an acknowledgment that Boudain never romanticized his life when he was alive, so there's no reason to romanticize him now that he's no longer with us. The interviews with the people who knew and worked with him are incredibly moving and sometimes difficult to watch. Very few documentaries include interviews as ready to share deeply personal stories that drive home the idea that the man we saw on TV was not the same man when cameras rolled. Bourdain was a complicated man who appeared to work extensively to make sure people didn't see how insecure he was inside.

The film's last half-hour does take an odd, tawdry turn, though, speculating that Asia Argento, who didn't participate in the documentary, may have played a role in Bourdain's decision to take his own life. Members of the Parts Unknown crew complain about the making of the Hong Kong episode, which Argento directed and cinematographer Christopher Doyle shot. They talk about leaving the series after that or feeling betrayed by Bourdain because he changed things up for one episode. Neville later revealed in an interview with Thrillist that he did not seek an interview with Argento.

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Bourdain took his own life in June 2018 while filming Parts Unknown in northeastern France, and his friend Eric Ripert found his body. That was just three years ago, meaning Neville is capturing emotions from interviewees that are still raw. Roadrunner looks at the impact his decision had on his colleagues and family. Although the film is sad, it also celebrates the work Bourdain left his fans around the world. Roadrunner perfectly shows us a man who might have known he was loved but didn't quite know what to do with it.

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