Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’ reveals harrowing glory of famed chef

Photo of Anthony Bourdain Roadrunner
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Rating: 2.5/5.0

Anthony Bourdain was a man on the run. He ran from mediocrity, from stagnation, from addiction, from fear. But the question remains unclear of what he was running toward — a question investigated in the documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” from Morgan Neville about Bourdain’s life and legacy as a belovedly brash celebrity chef and television personality.

“Roadrunner,” which is to be released in theaters July 16, is a Focus Features project that can only be described as tumultuous in both construction and content. In some way, the film’s variation is a reflection of Bourdain himself, who went against the grain with both fists raised. Even the film’s release felt purposeful, as it premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in early June, close to the three-year anniversary of Bourdain’s death by suicide in France while filming a project. 

“Roadrunner” disregards traditional temporality and a singular medium to frame Bourdain’s life through a series of interviews with close friends and family, clips and unbounded b-roll from his many television shows, pixelated scenes from his favorite films and vertical Instagram stories from his personal account. 

While the mix of media used keeps energy high, this decision doesn’t allow certain poignant scenes to breathe, letting them get lost amid the film’s range. Bourdain’s chaos was conveyed through his charisma alone, and it feels painfully overbearing for the film to try to mimic his abundance of attitude and wealth of emotion. Another striking directorial choice is the use of AI to create a Bourdain voiceover reading email correspondence with artist David Choe — an artificially abhorrent tactic the chef would have loathed. 

Similarly, scenes vary in length in an explosive manner: Uninterrupted full range shots of Bourdain staring out in solitude in remote corners of the world are mixed with snapshot sequences of his travels. Shots transition into each other in a painfully cheapening way — a shot of a reddened river, from a freshly slaughtered pig, cuts to the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. While it is an attempt to juxtapose Bourdain’s two environments, as a global traveler and public celebrity, it mars important moments of international violence for aesthetic purposes. 

That being said, “Roadrunner” gives insight into who Bourdain was behind the camera, starting out as a curious yet shy American out of his element abroad in his first series “Cook’s Tour,” which followed the mass overnight success of his memoir “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in a Culinary Underbelly.” The film provides an intimate glimpse into Bourdain as a father, to his daughter Ariane and caring husband to his second wife Ottavia Busia. It captures his transformation from “voyeur to storyteller,” and marks moments where international conflict and experiences prompted Bourdain’s political commentary. 

However, the film fully stumbles toward the end, with its depiction of his last relationship with Italian actress and #MeToo activist Asia Argento. “Roadrunner” dangerously flirts with the vilification of Argento in Bourdain’s death, as it splices together sequences of paparazzi photos of Argento in Rome embracing another man with Bourdain’s last Instagram stories leading up to his suicide. The film attempts to find balance with an interview with one of Bourdain’s directors, who stresses that Bourdain’s death is a result of individual choice — but this isn’t enough to merit the framing of Argento as the crux of Bourdain’s Icarus-like fall from grace and hope. Argento herself is never interviewed in the film, and her story in “Roadrunner” ends with her theorized contribution to his death, her character Yoko-Onoified into memory. 

“Roadrunner” attempts to answer the question of what Bourdain was running toward, but its fatal flaws prevent it from portraying Bourdain’s addictions and death in their entirety. Death is construed as destiny in a twisted way that makes it seem this world is too big for Bourdain, and vice versa. The film exhausts the idea of Bourdain running from his demons, but decides to compromise complexity for a plot line no one may have the privilege of knowing. “Roadrunner” chooses martyrdom over masterpiece, and discredits the fullness of Bourdain’s life and legacy. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.