Film Review – Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Cook, Chef, Writer, Traveler, TV Personality, Martial Artist, Lover, Husband, Father, Storyteller. Anthony Bourdain was many things to many people, and when he took his life in 2018 (at the age of 61) he revealed that there was more going on with him that others did not realize. While Morgan Neville’s documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021) touches on the ending of Bourdain’s life, the emphasis is on what he did while he was here with us. He traveled to so many places and met all sorts of people and experienced a vast array of cultures that he probably did enough to fill two or three lifetimes.
The first and biggest impression is just how much Bourdain is involved in telling his own story. The editing (Eileen Meyer, Aaron Wickenden) incorporates footage from his television shows, interviews, home movies, and photographs. It’s an avalanche of material, and I could only imagine the effort it took to put it all together. There are moments taken not only from Bourdain’s programs but between takes when people didn’t know the camera was rolling. We even get a narration from Bourdain himself, describing the events on screen. He bares his deepest thoughts about work, relationships, and the insecurities that plagued him.
The effect is jarring. Bourdain has such a presence in the construction of the narrative that I almost forgot he was dead. It was as though he somehow came back or was speaking from the grave, guiding us through the whirlwind of his life. Only when we cut to an interview with a friend, colleague, or family member do we snap back to reality. Neville begins with Bourdain’s bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential, which shot him into the limelight. From there, we follow as he goes from one endeavor to the next – from his traveling programs to his various marriages, to his concern over cultural strife and international politics. Eventually, his work had little to do with food – he was a man of the world.
Neville places focus on how much of a deep thinker Bourdain was. While doing his travel shows, Bourdain became invested with the people and the social issues they faced. He was less concerned about the food as he was the culture behind it. He adored art and idolized artists. In a scene where he describes how much he longed to be an acclaimed writer; Neville juxtaposes the dialogue with archival footage of Ernest Hemingway. Bourdain loved movies and wanted to have the kind of spontaneous, glitzy lifestyle of his favorite movie stars. There’s even a sequence where we find Bourdain driving a convertible top down with his wife, wearing a fancy suit and sunglasses. The fact that the sequence is shot in black and white immediately tells us that Bourdain revered Marcello Mastroianni, specifically the character he played in Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963).
But I wonder if Bourdian had an inkling with how much he mirrored those he looked up to. Hemingway, despite writing literary masterworks, would end up taking his own life. And while Mastroianni’s character in 8½ looked cool, it was only a façade that covered the emptiness he felt inside. Throughout Roadrunner, we get a sense that Bourdain battled the same ghosts. While he had a blunt way of speaking and was passionate to the point of emotional, video footage shows us a side of him that was more reserved and drawn in. Interviews explain that Bourdian was an introvert, and that wanting to travel was – perhaps – his way of breaking out of that.
It was as though Bourdain tried everything he could to fit into what he thought happiness should be. He had success, money, and a family, but he was always searching for the next big thing. Whether that was flying out of the country, taking up jiujitsu, or falling head over heels in love, Bourdian is constantly moving, searching for something just beyond his grasp. Unfortunately, we discover that he never finds what it is he’s looking for, and the second half has those closest to him try to piece together the clues that led up to his suicide. As they recall the final years of his life and as we see the footage of him, we can sense that things are coming to an end. He had such a fast-paced rhythm that to have things stop so suddenly is shocking. Sometimes those that display the most life are the ones in most need of help to preserve it.
Roadrunner is a perfect title to encapsulate Anthony Bourdain. It’s a celebration of his entire life – the highs and lows and the quiet moments in between. He experienced both the beautiful and the ugly, often at the same time. Maybe the film operates as Bourdain’s way of saying goodbye. Agree with what he did or not, there’s no denying that he did things his way. He came into this world, accomplished as much as any person could, and when it was all said and done left on his own terms.