Whether it’s the spoken word or the written one, I’ve been a fan of Anthony Bourdain since his work entered my life probably around eleven years ago. His ability to paint a portrait for those often forgotten or hidden voices, those belonging to refugees, immigrants, the lower class, artists, weirdos, etc, not to mention his candid and hilarious revelations about kitchen life, resonated with audiences. I think when he took his own life, fans were not only devastated, sad and/or angry, but curious as to why a man who got had a loving relationship with his daughter, a job many people thought was the coolest gig in the world and was seemingly a light for many fans would commit such a tragic act, one left even more ambiguous by the lack of any note. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain attempts to answer this question.
Directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?), Roadrunner is both a look at the life and career of Chef turned author turned reality TV star Anthony Bourdain and the road that led to his eventual suicide. The film is composed of archival footage and b-roll with Tony narrating throughout the film, but also of interviews with his production partners, directors, friends and family. The film opens in the late 90s, in the period leading up to and right after the launch of his bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential, which is a must read for anyone but especially for those who worked in a kitchen environment; doesn’t matter if you’re a chef or a dishwasher, something will jump out at you and make you say “too true”. We see Anthony literally become an overnight sensation, from waiting on tardy delivery men to being a guest on Oprah. It all happened so quickly and it wasn’t long before the concept for his follow-up novel was transformed into a television show, A Cook’s Tour. But even here, in the limelight, we can see that this life maybe isn’t for Tony. He’s a bit reluctant at first, admitting he’d like to quit after his fifteen minutes are up, but the romantic in him, and goodness is he ever the romantic (and a pirate) and the chance to explore eventually grabs hold of him. This is the beginning of a familiar habit that the film exhibits concerning its subject.
Roadrunner wisely never feels like an extended episode of Parts Unknown, his hit series on CNN (who also produced the film with HBO Max), but rather a look at the man who was simply passing through all these destinations. Tony was always rushing through life, eager for the next adventure, even when there was no adventure plan. Then he yearned to be home, only to have the beaten path call to him again. How could he be the pirate while being the dad who grills hot dogs on Sunday? Short answer is he can’t, not when he’s touring the world 250 days a year and working on new books. The process, despite being exhilarating, also seemed to burn Tony out, who was something of a maniacal control freak on set.
Neville and Bourdain’s friends and colleagues suggest to the viewer that this quest for discovery ultimately led to a road of isolation and sadness. Not to mention, seeing some harrowing acts as he visited all the world’s most dangerous spots. A trip to Haiti allowed Tony to feed the starving population, only to have the situation spiral out of control with the bigger, stronger individuals fighting smaller and weaker ones for the free food that was being given out by the film crew. Watching hotel guests, himself included, getting a tan as a war unexpectedly broke out in Lebanon seemed paradoxical to Tony and he refused to profit off of the misery of the people. The network disagreed, seeing gold in the material.
A former heroin addict, Tony always seemed to be looking for the next high in life, despite being cold turkey sober. Whether it be love, adventure, Jiu Jitsu or his encyclopedic knowledge of film (he adored Apocalypse Now and had fun replicating shots of the movie in his show), it was always something. Tony yearned to be the romanticized version of a father but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, quit his job to fulfill that dream, as the unknown road offered too many thrills to seek out. But the shadow of misery and death followed him on that road. He would always think about death, including his own, and how he hoped that, unless his death was a bloody mess a la Fargo woodchipper scene, he wouldn’t want his passing to be a big deal. He would be caught on camera joking about his own suicide, asking if the mast of a boat could hold him up by the neck, which was incredibly eerie to hear him say considering the method of his suicide. Was it just dark humor, fitting of his wild and unfiltered lifestyle, or was it a cry for help? Friends would likely say the latter, but only with the benefit of hindsight, and question if they could have done more.
Interviews with friends and family help fill in the blanks. Early stories are filled with his discoveries, later stories filled with more confusion, anger and resentment, especially once Asia Argento enters his life. Despite claiming true happiness, was Tony really happy with her or was she another high that simply made him happy? The film makes it clear that once Asia entered his life, he certainly changed and he became much more difficult to work with as well. Was there a direct correlation? Questions for the audience to ponder, but the film never points the finger at Argento either, with one friend stating that it was Tony who ultimately chose to take his own life instead of seeking help formally.
While the movie is hypnotically captivating during its roughly two-hour runtime, the use of an AI to recreate Tony’s voice to read an email is the only real spot where the movie stumbles. Not only was it obviously not Bourdain’s voice, but it detracted from the words within the email, and that’s not even taking into account the ethics behind such a decision. I honestly can’t remember what he said in that message because I was so caught off guard by this AI voice trying to be Bourdain. Maybe if I never saw that story in the first place I wouldn’t have been so aware of it, but knowing it was in the movie made me on guard for the moment and when it arrived, it was like a giant flag waving in the air. The scene would have been more impactful if his friend, David Choe, had just continued to read the email on his own.
Roadrunner is both a celebration of Tony’s life and a cautionary tale of filling in the voids in one’s life. As the footage catches up to the end of the 2010s, we can see Bourdain looking more lost in some shots and his behaviour becomes more erratic and unpredictable. The story, as much as the subject is fascinating, is haunting and sobering. Do we get any clear answers? No, how could we. It’s all assumption and conjecture. But the movie tries to explain, with the help of those closest to him, how the change happened, but naturally it can only guess, and those thoughts are as ambiguous and open-ended as the man himself. One thing we do learn from the movie is that Tony never saw himself as a journalist, political or even a good father but the film suggests that he was not only those things, but he was very good at them, Tony just couldn’t or wouldn’t see the truth about the impact he had on others.