At first, it’s hard to think of the point of Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. As an early barrage of footage of the late chef and TV personality’s long history in front of cameras for incredibly intimate documentary shows attests, there’s not much mystery to a man who gained fame precisely for being so confessional. Even the director, Morgan Neville, can be heard stammering off-screen when an interviewee asks why he’s making this, struggling for words before meekly responding he wants to show why Bourdain mattered.

Indeed, much of the film’s early stretch is devoted to a wholly unnecessary recap of the chef’s sudden launch to fame on the back of his memoir, Kitchen Confidential, and how he quickly became a media sensation for his witty, raw interviews. Producers Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins recount pitching him on “A Cook’s Tour,” the first of his travelogue shows, only to discover that this seemingly earthy man had rarely ventured outside New York. Even their anecdotes of initially finding Bourdain to be prickly and withdrawn are no great revelation, as the early episodes of “A Cook’s Tour” bear out his discomfort and uncertainty with the project.

The film picks up, though, when recounting his first trip to Vietnam and how that “Cook’s Tour” episode not only changed his dedication to the project but his entire life. Confronted with a nation whose reality was incompatible from the image of it he’d gotten from war movies and American propaganda, Bourdain was shaken loose of dutiful tourism spots and began to dig into the minutiae of everyday life in the places he visited, setting the stage for the unvarnished, often political shows for which he is known. He even embraced the filmmaking side of things, which he explored in ever more ambitious ways for the rest of his career. Here, the testimony of colleagues who had a front-row seat to his professional and spiritual awakening help expand on the details already visible in his work, offering a portrait of a man who spent most of his life in search of a calling and became overjoyed to discover it in his forties.

Just as compelling as its image of Bourdain’s self-actualization, Roadrunner contains a subtly woven progression of the man’s lifelong depression gradually creeping into his fussy control of his shows and his growing anxiety over becoming a celebrity. Clips of Bourdain offhandedly discussing his anger and addictions as an adolescent ground a portrait of lifelong wanderlust and discontent, and many of the interview subjects note how his obsessive fixation on certain activities or people tended to prefigure mental health breaks. Some of the most revealing aspects of the documentary are unintentional; Bourdain was known for being able to forge connections with strangers from all walks of life, but all of the friends interviewed for the film are pointedly people who met him through professional means, whether his producers or crew members or the chefs and artists he met through his shows. Repeated references are made to how much Bourdain chafed at being unable to go anywhere without being stopped by fans, but in many ways the interviewees are a testament to how his entire life reoriented around being famous and constantly filmed.

Such slight but helpful illuminations of the pleasures and perils of notoriety offer a peek behind the curtain of Bourdain and impart information that wasn’t already obvious about him. But the film takes an ominous turn as it approaches the subject of his suicide, which was preceded by a turbulent few years in which he separated from his second wife, began to feel constricted by television and met the Italian actress and director Asia Argento, with whom he began a passionate relationship. Bourdain’s romance prompted him to embrace Argento’s status as one of the early major figures of the #MeToo movement when it expanded into the film industry, and anyone who followed his social media or press presence for the last year of his life knows how deeply he committed to denouncing industry misogyny and abuse.

That makes it all the more disturbing how Neville freely lets Bourdain’s grieving friends project their hurt and anger over his loss onto Argento, who, in a dark indulgence of Bourdain’s references of rock cliché, is treated like a cross between Yoko Ono (harshing the crew’s rapport on the episode of “Parts Unknown” that she directed) and Courtney Love (being held all but openly responsible for his death thanks to her tabloid scandals). It is hard to imagine Bourdain responding to this treatment of a woman he loved with anything less than fury, even if relationship stress contributed to a larger mental health struggle. Neville pointedly does not interview Argento herself, leaving insinuations about her character as the final word in the story of a man who so often seemed to highlight the best in people and places despite his own cynicism. It’s an ugly parting note, one that ignores the more elegant depiction of depression as an ongoing and private battle that the film otherwise gently outlines.

Morgan Neville’s documentary on the late celebrity shines a new light on a much-filmed icon but ultimately succumbs to seedy and heated recrimination.
45 %
Frustratingly limited
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