Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Documentarian Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom," "Won't You Be My Neighbor?") explores the life of the famous punk rock chef, author and television travel raconteur from his late breaking success with bestseller ‘Kitchen Confidential” at the age of 43 to his shocking suicide 18 years later in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.”

Laura's Review: B+

Neville knew he what he was going to call his film before he made it and so it is no surprise that it kicks off with The Modern Lovers' 'Roadrunner,' an apt theme for the restless traveler whose career began as a Massachusetts dishwasher.  As the film will wrap with many of those who knew and loved Bourdain considering his suicide, it is also no surprise that the first words we hear from the man himself have to do with his own death, something he says we should all think about even though he cares little what happens to his physical remains.  That is unless his body could be used for entertainment, like ‘being sprayed from a wood chipper at Harrods at rush hour.’

After this rebellion-tinged, blackly humorous opening, Neville gets down to the business of charting Bourdain’ life in three basic sections.  The first, accompanied by Bourdain’s own wonderment at how a dishwashing job ended up defining his career, shows the man at his famed NYC bistro Les Halles and relates the inspiration for the book, ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ that would springboard him to fame, an email sent to book editor Karen Rinaldi’s husband.  The man his television producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins would learn was actually little traveled, wrote about a business trip to Japan with such a uniquely humorous voice, Rinaldi pitched him a book deal.  Bourdain, who loved literature and movies and always considered himself more a writer than a chef, jumped at the opportunity and the next thing he knew he was gracing the couches of Letterman and Oprah.

When his second book, ‘A Cook’s Tour,’ began to come together, Lydia and Chris pitched him on the idea of making it a television series.  The trio learned together, Bourdain barely speaking through the first segment they shot in Japan.  Then Vietnam, Bourdain’s favorite place, made everything click (he would famously meet up there years later with Barack Obama).  When renowned chef Eric Ripert invited him to lunch, Bourdain brought along a television crew and forged a lifelong friendship.  But these early successes also flashed warning signs, the former heroin addict noting the need for routine in his life that had been upended.  He quit being a chef and his decades long marriage to his high school sweetheart, Nancy Putkoski, collapsed.

In 2006, a trip to Lebanon with “No Reservations” found Bourdain and crew confined to their hotel as war began.  He refused to exploit the situation and a social consciousness worked its way into his show.  He married his 2nd wife, Ottavia and had a daughter, Ariane, surprising himself with his love of a role he’d never imagined for himself.  But over the years the constant life on the road began to take a toll.  When musician/artist friend John Lurie suggested going out, Bourdain said he was beginning to become agoraphobic.  The extreme low rebounded with another high, one even Anthony recognized might be his undoing – a love affair with Italian actress Asia Argento.  Thus begins the last year of Bourdain’s life, one which friends recount with mounting distress.

Neville had a wealth of material to shape his doc, from home movies to media appearances to archives from Bourdain’s multiple series and current interviews with friends and family.  Segment producer Helen M. Cho recounts the severe changes in Bourdain’s behavior after hooking up with Argento, like the firing of long term cameraman Zach Zamboni, a man once considered family.  When Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” director needed emergency surgery right before a Hong Kong trip, Anthony hires his lover and we witness outtakes from the segment which was never aired, Argento’s style obviously all wrong for Bourdain’s show to everyone but him.  We hear from several people about how his obsessive behavior was pushing her away, even witnessing it in one instance, yet the man himself was on a manic high.

Admirably, Neville has produced no hagiography here, his complex subject coming across warts and all, his ego notable, the man’s manic temperament which contributed to his suicide part and parcel of what made him tick.  Neville wraps on the same punk rock note with which he began, Bourdain friend Queens of the Stone Age's Joshua Homme performing 'Black and Blue Is the Best I Can Do' and talking about their daughters.  Close friend chef David Chang weeps while relating a hurtful comment even as he acknowledges its transferential nature.  He then becomes angered by how society romanticizes the suicides of the famous, noting that a Bourdain mural has been painted and does the most punk rock thing of all – he defaces it.  He thinks his friend would have approved.

Robin's Review: B

Focus Features releases "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain" in theaters on 7/16/2021.