‘Roadrunner’ review: The life and death of Anthony Bourdain, served up in style

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There’s a key moment right at the end of director Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain documentary “Roadrunner,” opening Friday, when the filmmaker glances on global pop culture’s live-fast, die-young, leave-a-good-looking-bestseller habit of romanticizing great public talents who die by suicide.

Bourdain, the widely adored celebrity chef, bestselling author (starting with “Kitchen Confidential”) and omnipresent television star of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” and other far-flung series, hanged himself in 2018, while in France filming yet another TV episode. We’ll keep the specifics of that moment out of the review. But without it, Neville’s documentary would’ve been a little poorer and less honest about a life lived in accelerated engagement with the world around him, while trying to outrun depression, addiction, doubts and alienation.

The camera was running for a lot of that life. Bourdain established various personae for himself once he got famous — variations on the theme of who he was at his troubled core. What grew out of that ensemble of personalities, however, was a true seeker and humanist, curious about its limits to the end. As Bourdain, the Iggy Pop of the foodie world, tells the real Iggy Pop in one clip: Curiosity’s “my only virtue.”

In any front-rank food city, Bourdain became a frequent and honored guest, usually with the cameras running. For filmmaker Neville, the literal thousands of hours of existing Bourdain footage, Instagram- or CNN-quality, meant he had nearly unlimited options to augment this particular life story, so full of simmering delicacies in close-up.

Early on in “Roadrunner,” in footage from 1999 just before Bourdain became a conflicted, self-doubting brand thanks to his “Kitchen Confidential” tell-all book, we see him outside Manhattan’s bistro Les Halles, waiting for the “fish guy” to show up with the evening’s supplies. “It’s why all chefs are drunks,” he quips. “Because we don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.”

Through two marriages and a final, tabloid-clouded affair with actor and director Asia Argento, Bourdain spent an increasingly heavy percentage of his years on the road, away from his family life. “I’m not an advocate, I’m not an educator, (and) I’m not looking to inspire,” he says in one clip, clearly resenting the burden of expectation he sensed from a planet full of admirers and fans.

What emerges from “Roadrunner” is smoothly engineered, deeply respectful assessment of a troubled, fabulously charismatic soul. It brakes right at the edge of hagiography; subjects or ancillary interview subjects in a Neville project know they can count on a more-than-fair shake, be they semi-famous or legendary emblems of empathy. Partly amped up for the camera, mostly (I’m guessing) not, Bourdain’s aura of cool preceded him wherever the next meal or trail took him. He wrote about his self-destructive streak all the time. Like everything else in his life, writing “fills me with terror, frankly,” he says at one point in the 1999 footage.

Neville adjusts the editing rhythm of each new film to the nervous system of his subject. “Roadrunner” editors Eileen Meyerand Aaron Wickenden make sharp, hurtling connections and keep the pace in tune with Bourdain’s own. The filmic, performative nature of that subject provides many of those natural interpolations, like little hyperlinks. We catch a few seconds here and there from all sorts of memory-jogs from Bourdain’s life, including “Apocalypse Now” and the delightful Burt Lancaster romp “The Crimson Pirate.” Such fantasies fed his sense of adventure and a thirst for real life-plus. In that regard Bourdain was Graham Greene, but with better restaurant tips.

“The least I can do,” he says at one point, “is to see the world with open eyes.” Neville, one suspects, goes by a related credo, and just when the viewer expects one sort of romanticized ending to “Roadrunner,” a truer, more bracing one drops into place.



3.5 stars (out of 4)

Rating: R (for language throughout)

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

How to watch: Opens Friday in theaters