Anthony Bourdain was a chef, an author, a world traveler, a drug addict, a television star, and a rebel. It's no wonder he achieved phenomenal success. Almost everybody could relate to at least one of his traits. Adoring fans were shocked when he took his own life in June 2018. The documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain doesn't have the answers to why he chose to hang himself, although it does paint an effective portrait of his eclectic life experiences. Using extensive interview clips, director Morgan Neville (Won't You Be My Neighbor?) captures the mix of intelligence, volatility, and vulnerability that drove his every decision.
The movie starts at the moment his career shifted. Having kicked a drug habit and established himself as a chef, he decided to write a no-holds-barred behind-the-scenes book about his profession. “Kitchen Confidential” was a surprise best seller, turning Bourdain into a media darling. Talk show appearances became commonplace, and the book was turned into a short-lived TV show starring Bradley Cooper. Bourdain had to evolve in order to handle abrupt fame.
From there, the offer came to host his own program, which would take him around the world to have exotic culinary adventures. Early episodes found him stiff on-camera, trying to be what he thought a television host was supposed to be. Only when he scrapped that and just exhibited his own personality did the format click. Personal evolution is one of the primary themes of Roadrunner. Bourdain continually adapted to new opportunities by fine-tuning himself. It was, as much as his talent, the element that allowed him to succeed.
But did he lose himself somewhere in there? Friends and professional collaborators appear on camera to offer their perspectives on what was going on during every stage of Bourdain's career. A couple of his TV colleagues suggest that he started to buy a little too much into the rebel image he cultivated, leading him to become demanding on set and less collaborative with his producers. It's the classic catch-22. The more he embraced that wild side, the more beloved he became with fans, and the more challenging the shows became to assemble.
Roadrunner mixes the varied interview footage with clips from its subject's work to help us understand just what a unique figure he was. Bourdain seems surprised by his own trajectory, doing things he never even remotely imagined. This visibly brings him significant satisfaction. It also stirred up a few of his personal demons, especially during a turbulent romance with actress Asia Argento. After she revealed that she'd been sexually assaulted by former Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, Bourdain became an obsessive ally of the #MeToo movement. When Argento then cheated on him, he sank into despair.
The documentary stops short of blaming the failed romance for his suicide, although it was likely a contributor. Instead, Roadrunner suggests that Bourdain was a person who felt things very deeply, for better or worse. We will never know for sure what swirled together on that tragic June night. What we do know, however, is that something – or some combination of things – drove him to a place of desperation that was at odds with the vibrant, life-embracing person he normally was.
To draw any firm conclusion regarding his death would be wrong, and the film is smart to not try. Roadrunner just strives to be a case study of a man who thrived in numerous fields before something went terribly wrong. We get to know Anthony Bourdain over the course of two hours. We see what made him tick, what his strengths and weaknesses were. In the end, this touching, often darkly funny documentary makes viewers admire the scope of his achievements and mourn the sadness of his passing.
out of four
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is rated R for language throughout. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.