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Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Jul 17, 2021

A fascinating biography of arguably the most celebrated chef of this century.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is not the documentary you thought it might be. It is not a fluff piece of praise about arguably the most famous celebrity chef of this century, nor does it claim to explain why he committed suicide at age 61. What it does do is thrill with his charisma, a personal magnetism that makes this tall, handsome man taller than anyone else in the room.

From the moment his Kitchen Confidential hit the streets and became an instant New York Times best seller, the food world had an apologist for its greatness and a foodie realist who trumpeted the greatness of eating around the world. Not even tales of his heroin addiction could dissuade food lovers from making him the emblem of in-your-face food fashion. Home videos of him at times such as when he berates a fishmonger in front of Bourdain’s Park Ave steak house, Les Halles, are endearing.

As the doc depicts him, he is almost more interested in how a nation’s cuisine mirrors its culture than the actual nature of the food itself. If fish is the Japanese signature food, then how it is presented is more important than the fish. He is roguish and bad-ass, not Batali or Emeril.

The doc is itself more interested in spying on Bourdain or tracking him walking and talking than it is in how he helps his or someone else’s restaurant attain star ratings. Director Morgan Neville has found the most charming footage, much of it outtakes from the hundreds of hours of him at play and occasionally at work on his celebrated cable shows. (The kerfuffle about their using an AI, deepfaked bot for some of his narration is interesting but does not compromise the overall Bourdain depiction.)

The most fascinating “at play” is his intriguing love affairs with his second wife, Ottavia, and Italian actress Asia Argento, who eventually leaves him for another man and us to wonder if that split is the cause of his final act (he hung himself in a hotel room in 2018). Lamentably this great writer left no note to help us understand that inscrutable act.

To its credit, the documentary makes no claims to know why but neatly allows voice overs to make insightful, if not superficial, conclusions that this peripatetic celebrity could not find his place in even the most exotic places on earth. Ironically, Bourdain claimed to be an open book about his talent and his demons, but really never allowed the latter to reveal themselves or explain his exit.

My own inference from the tantalizing details of this outstanding documentary is that, like Hemingway, Plath, and Robin Williams, to name only three famous suicides, his talent and his charm overwhelmed even him, to the extent that they were crushing the real Tony out of existence. He never knew himself well enough to be able to save himself.

Who knows? The doc does well, anyway, showing the daily thrills of Bourdain, how much he loved people more than food, and how restless his soaring talent was. In the end, he may have been too gifted to be able to live with himself. And that’s what I thought about Hemingway as well. Great gifts require great care lest they destroy.

Roadrunner: The Life of Anthony Bourdain is a fascinating study of a celebrated chef who was far more interesting than the food he celebrated.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Director: Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor)

Screenplay: Documentary

Cast: Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, Ottavia Bourdain

Run Time: 1h 59m

Rating: R

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com