Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is just that, the documentary film is by Oscar winning director Morgan Deville (20 Feet to Stardom, Best of Enemies), who is no stranger to directing docs about people in the public eye. Just recently he released two documentaries, Won’t You Be My Neighbor which was about the life and philosophy of Fred Rogers, the host and creator of the beloved PBS show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. His other was the Netflix documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead which chronicled the ill-fated production of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which was finally released in 2018.
They were both very deeply personal films that examined hidden struggles of both men, with Roadrunner Neville once again shapes a narrative of a celebrity icon, who’s also a very lonely man whose demise stemmed from insecurities, frustrations, and other severely deep agonies. As we already know, there is no satisfying ending to find here. Anthony Bourdain, the world-famous chef, author, husband, father, and traveler tragically died of suicide in 2018. The film feels destined to end the way it does, but Neville does a courageous job in playing tribute to a man who fell victim to his depressions.
A deeply moving and absorbing tribute to a man that held many shades, Roadrunner is a somber and other times an amusing account of a man in the public eye, and how he viewed the world. The film begins in his younger days in the public eye as he was an outspoken rebel: a respected chef who stood up for his fellow cooks in the New York restaurant scene. A type of guy that seemed very extroverted on the outside who could easily talk to anyone. Yet beneath all of it was a very lonely and shy man, a writer, a movie lover and obsessive reader, as well as a host of a reality show where he and his crew would travel all around the world as he would eat some of the most unusual meals each locale had to offer. It was a show where Bourdain didn’t mock or condescend the other cultures, he just absorbed himself in the moment and immersed himself into each meal and environment without feeling smug or glib about it.
Neville does an exceptional job of examining Bourdain’s life, which chronicles his early days as a chef in New York City. This led to his secret revelations to the public of what exactly goes in the kitchen with his 2000 bestseller Kitchen Confidential. This led to him becoming a reality show host as he ventured around the world with his fellow film crew which became like a second family, a eventually into a relationship with Italian actress Asia Argento–which ended up causing him a lot of insecurity and despair in the last years of his life which eventually led to Bourdain’s tragic death in June of 2018. While certainly a tribute, Neville takes a more manic approach to the documentary that ends up becoming more precarious than anticipated. It’s a bold and commanding effort for a documentary like this, but again not a surprise due to Neville’s personal style.
Asia Argento is never interviewed in the film, which would have been something deeply compelling to watch. Even though Neville and his subjects aren’t easy on her as her tabloid sensation of her chat on Anthony with another man. Even though Asia Argento has recently come out stating that Anthony also cheated on her as he was away from most of the year with his travel show. You get the sense though that Neville wanted to make a documentary more about Bourdain’s life, and the people who truly cared and remembered him without bringing too much media frenzy and scrutiny.
The beauty of the documentary lies in how Bourdain’s travels still brought him an appreciation of life, despite internal suffering and other depressions he was facing. Bourdain was certainly a deep thinker, a man who contemplative life in the very same ways the characters do in the films he loved ranging from Bergman, Kurosawa, to Fellini. Bourdain in many ways wishes the camera wasn’t on him, but wishes it just floating through space and time. There is no wonder why he was friends with Christopher Doyle, the gifted and renowned Hong Kong cinematographer who appears in the documentary when Asia and Bourdain travel to Hong Kong for an episode. He believed we should be travelers to the places we attend, not consumerists or tourists. Don’t just go to the trendy or active areas, get outside your comfort zone and survey the surroundings.
A heartbreaking scene comes when Bourdain is tasting a meal from an outdoor cook in Africa, and with plenty of leftovers from her meals, Bourdain agrees to give all the leftovers to the local villagers nearby. This leads to people cutting in line and being hostile to each other due to poverty and scarcity of food. This is what led to Anthony Bourdain being a huge advocate against food waste in society. Another powerful moment is when he’s visiting Lebanon with his crew, and a war is going on as they can see bombs and invasions from the pool on the top roof where they are staying, Bourdain insisted that they can’t profit off misery and advises to turn the cameras off as the network insisted on keeping them on. This only emphasizes that we need more Anthony Bourdain’s in the world.
Over the course of nearly 120 mins, Neville probes deep into Bourdain trying to find fulfillment and a purpose, and into some heartbreaking difficult places in an effort to discover Bourdain’s own soul as well. It feels like a personal essay that deepens as the film goes on. Like Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Neville isn’t interested in making a tabloid expose on a TV celebrity, again he asks contemplative questions about his purpose he had on this earth, through his show, through his book, and through others.
Neville allows the audience to walk out in hopes that we reach out to the people close around us because we never truly know exactly what anyone is going through. How many of us would be in much better spot mentally if we just opened to others more and unleashed what we are really feeling? Why can’t this be done without facing the endless fears and insecurities of being judged or neglected? Neville allows the audience to ponder these questions, and Roadrunner will certainly move you. It’s a melancholic account of the ways in which depression can destroy us from within, and it’s a mournful portrait of a man’s failure to open up to others that would have easily given him the support and stability he so desperately needed.