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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain— Enjoyable but Imperfect

A documentary about Anthony Bourdain and his career as a chef, writer and host, revered and renowned for his authentic approach to food, culture and travel.

Tribeca Film Festival 2021
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain Review

Anthony Bourdain was one of the more compelling American popular culture figures of the new century. He went from being a bad-boy chef to an unlikely author to a travel TV star, eventually becoming a widely beloved figure. His shocking death at age 61, by suicide, in 2018, left the entire world in mourning. 

Bourdain’s life is an ideal one for the documentary treatment, and now it’s gotten it, from filmmaker Morgan Neville, who’s coming off a run of the acclaimed docs 20 Feet From Stardom, Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead

The documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, with a planned stop at the AFI Docs Film Festival later in June before it lands in theaters in mid-July. The film will eventually land on Bourdain’s old stomping grounds on CNN. 

Image: Focus Features

Neville’s film is an entertaining, representative, and very fair representation of Bourdain’s life, even if it doesn’t introduce a ton of information that won’t already be familiar to Bourdain die-hards. The documentary doesn’t spend a ton of time on his restaurant career and concurrent drug addictions,  probably because there’s not much footage of it. It intersperses footage from Bourdain’s shows with behind-the-scenes material, as well as interviews with Bourdain’s friends, colleagues, and ex-wife. 

The film doesn’t whitewash Bourdain’s life or the way it ended, and in fact, it goes a little too far in the other direction, as the friends quoted take a turn into the mean-spirited in the documentary’s last act. 

Roadrunner, despite a few earlier flashbacks, mostly starts its story around the 2000 publication of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s memoir that was one of the best books ever written about the restaurant industry. This led to his TV career, and eventually to Bourdain becoming TV’s foremost interpolator of the world of food. Roadrunner expertly lays out the multiple evolutions of Bourdain, from his career changes to the way his shows eventually became about way more than food, to the way Bourdain himself noticeably grew up over the course of his career. 

The film touches on all of the key moments that are likely familiar to Bourdain die-hards. Such as how Bradley Cooper starred in a short-lived sitcom adaption of Kitchen Confidential, which failed in part because neither Bourdain nor Cooper was much of a household name yet. Or the time Bourdain became a first-time father at age 50, and it affected his life. 

We also get the inside stories of Bourdain’s shows, especially the No Reservations in 2006 when they were taping in Beirut, and a war broke out between Lebanon and Israel. It’s an episode that everyone involved agreed profoundly changed Bourdain’s career, and his approach to the show, from that point forward. 

Roadrunner also makes clear how Bourdain’s story shows that even the guy with money and fame who seems to have the most enjoyable life in the world isn’t impervious to suicidal depression. 

The film, though, takes a bit of a turn near the end, once the subject turns to Bourdain’s relationship with actress/director Asia Argento. Documentaries about the Beatles tend to take a similar pivot once Yoko Ono is first introduced. 

Image: Focus Features

We learn from just about everyone interviewed that Argento wasn’t particularly liked by anyone in Bourdain’s life, that their relationship was volatile, and that Bourdain’s staff was appalled by decisions she made while directing an episode of Parts Unknown. If these people are making any attempt to hide their contempt for Argento, they’re doing a very poor job of it. 

The interviewees aren’t especially impressed by Bourdain’s late-in-life #MeToo advocacy, with one talking head calling it a manifestation of his addictive personality (Argento was an accuser of Harvey Weinstein, once declaring at Cannes that Weinstein had once raped her at that very festival; Argento, after Bourdain’s death, was later accused of #MeToo-related transgressions herself.) 

The film doesn’t come right out and blame Argento for Bourdain’s suicide, although it does make clear that his death came days after the actress appeared in tabloid photos with another man. There’s also an attempt to decode Bourdain’s final Instagram post, which is the sort of thing that I thought had been left behind in the recent Britney Spears documentary. 

I don’t blame Neville for including these details, since they’re clearly germane. But they get a bit over the top after a while and eventually, they all but overwhelm the film. It’s just a weird tonal pivot in the last 30 minutes.  It would be like if, when Neville made his documentary about Mr. Rogers, a bunch of the staffers on Rogers’ show suddenly came clean about how they always hated Mr. Rogers’ wife and had been holding grudges for years about how she always made the show and their lives worse. 

  • Stephen Silver

The Tribeca Film Festival runs June 9-20. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Paul Azadian

    June 26, 2021 at 7:43 pm

    Thank you Stephen, for effectively conveying the undertones throughout the piece. It really is the foundation that informs the viewing experience, and I appreciate the heads-ups!

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