Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Morgan Neville
By Tom Moore
Documentarian Morgan Neville captured the hearts of many with his profile pic, ”Won’t You Be My Neighbor”, that captured the spirit and impact of Fred Rogers back in 2018. Now, Neville returns with another pic that looks to shed light on the story of renowned chef/travel guide Anthony Bourdain leading up to his devastating suicide with “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”(2021).
In a similar vein to Robin Williams’ suicide, Bourdain’s really caught the world off guard simply because he was seen as this beacon of hope and happiness with how he provided a window into vast cultures for many people from the comfort of their couch. For most, he was a meaningful inspiration that was real and completely himself. Bourdain was really open to understanding everyone he came across on a deep level and was the type of person that you could easily talk to on the street if you ever saw him. “Roadrunner” captures all this and more with its depiction of Bourdain going from being a renowned chef to an international travel icon.
Neville creates a deeply engaging narrative with how he mixes present-day interviews with archived footage and showcases Bourdain rightfully as lovably counterculture. Often times, interviews with personal colleagues and friends would be introduced alongside seeing them with Bourdain in archived footage and it not only creates a great connection between past and present, but also makes for much more engaging storytelling. Neville also smartly avoids generic storytelling tropes by not just creating a chronological narrative that delves into his upbringing, then time as a chef, then becoming a tv host, and then getting to where “things went wrong.” Rather he simply starts things at the moment Bourdain’s life completely changed as his book “Kitchen Confidential” launched him into full-blown stardom.
Within in this narrative, Neville completely captures Bourdain as an embodiment of counterculture with a lot of heart as the realness he brought to everything he did and his genuine love of finding truth and understanding fully come through. Bourdain made every effort to be himself and not just be a standard travel host to the point where he really broke the mold for what himself and his work could offer. The film really digs into how “Parts Unknown” and Bourdain’s other works broke political and cultural ground simply without wanting or trying to because of Bourdain’s openness and desires to explore culture unfiltered without ever exploiting or misrepresenting anyone. It was this distinct passion for people and exploration that made him so beloved by many and the film’s deep showcasing of his personal life only solidifies who he was even more.
It’s great too how Neville’s non-typical storytelling allows for discussion on Bourdain’s struggles with his mental health and paint a strong, gut-wrenching picture of chronic depression without ever tarnishing his greater qualities. When the film delves into Bourdain’s struggles with happiness, finding a sense of homestead and self-sufficient support, and becoming enveloped by his life in front of the camera, it never paints Bourdain as someone who never wanted help or was just looking for attention, but rather lost in their own depression. His discussion with a therapist about only being happy for a few seconds at a time really embodies the struggles of chronic depression and how people can really find themselves stuck in this hole that seemingly offers no escape. The interviews with friends and colleagues perfectly talk about him struggling to find the kind of support he was looking for and are able to really open up the conversation about depression that could never be made publicly when he was around.
There’s even a kind of visual you begin to notice with this archived footage that’s kind of disturbing and troubling the more you realize it. Bourdain really had cameras on him at all times, even when he wasn’t filming some kind of show, and it was a likely a major reason that he struggled so much to open up about his issues because he never had the privacy to do so. Mix that with him constantly traveling, which didn’t make his family support system as strong since he couldn’t be with them a lot, and never having the time to let go of past transgressions and it’s sadly no wonder why Bourdain struggled with depression so much. However, seeing and hearing the struggles he had doesn’t make what happened any easier to swallow and it’s easy to get teary-eyed and leave the film with a heavy heart as Neville perfectly depicts the trauma and heartache that suicide causes to those close. It’s a devastating mix of angry tears and struggling to find closure that’s easy to resonate with and the way that artist David Choe pays tribute to Bourdain is beautifully moving and fitting to his legacy.
For a film so fitting to Bourdain, his legacy, and who he really was, it’s a shame that it’s nearly tarnished by two fatal mistakes that could haunt Neville’s reputation. When the film delves into Bourdain’s final relationship with actress Asia Argento, his last relationship before he committed suicide, the film really paints her in a poor light and pretty much points the finger at her for Bourdain committing suicide. There is just a barrage of interviews with people clearly not happy with how Bourdain changed during their relationship and they build this narrative of it being her fault that Bourdain killed himself. Clearly their relationship had issues, but it’s kind of unfair and unethical to paint Argento like this. She’s not interviewed or a part of the film so it’s a totally one-sided view and none of the interviews or what we see clearly denotes anything overtly toxic. Like if she was egging on his addictive behavior or abusing him than it should’ve been said because it would’ve made a more concise argument for Argento getting unnecessarily railed in this film and it sparking a dangerous theory.
There’s also another hotly discussed, unethical element to “Roadrunner” that involves Neville using A.I. to add in narration with Bourdain’s voice using words he had written down but never said. The idea definitely has good intentions behind it with how it gives unspoken words of Bourdain’s his voice and it does add something to the experience with how it lets Bourdain tell his own story. However, the cost of it is too steep since it tarnishes the authenticity of the storytelling as Neville never discloses this in the film and using a manufactured voice completely goes against the authenticity and honesty that Bourdain tried so hard to preserve for himself.
More often than not, Bourdain is excellently captured in “Roadrunner” as his unflinching passion for life continually warms your heart, reminding you why he’s so special and the exploration of his battle with depression is as unfiltered as he is. However, Neville’s choices here sadly keep “Roadrunner” from being a flawless portrayal and not only detract from the experience, but calls Neville’s authenticity and ethics into question – something that could spell doom for him down the road.