“What the hell am I doing here?” asks Anthony Bourdain, via archive audio, early in Morgan Neville‘s new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” “I’ll explain,” he continues, and he does. The public grief when Bourdain committed suicide in 2018 was overwhelming; there was also some confusion, because although he had always talked about his own demons and urges, his books and television programs conveyed such a tangible joie de vivre. But of course these things can sometimes coexist for decades. Neville’s film tries to reconcile them, not always successfully.
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Neville begins in the middle of the rise, around 1999, with low-fi footage of the chef becoming a writer as he rides the success of his first book and prepares for the start of his first series with all of the joys and headaches it brings to him at the same time offers. He’s a man at a crossroads; “My early heroes were adventurers and writers,” he explains. But we understand what a leap it was for him to become a world traveler because when he first started he hadn’t really traveled much and wasn’t comfortable in front of the camera or in social situations with strangers. But he was curious – “the hungry ghost that sought and sought what was next” – and he was adaptable and got very good, very quick.
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These are the best sections of the film, where his development as both a person and a personality is sharply analyzed (while, as he concluded, he understood the difference between the two). “It’s not about you being a travel guide,” his longtime collaborator Chris Collins remembers telling him. “You are open to this experience.” And that became his working principle: “I think I can least see the world with open eyes.” But Neville’s film goes further and explains how seeing the world changed him – how he felt about himself and his work and thinks (most provocatively) his country. “It was never about food,” explains his friend and fellow celebrity chef David Chang. “I think it was about Tony learning to be a better person.”
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The cutting (of Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden) is simple but clever – jumps in its slipstream and tries to tell the story at its own pace, with relentless urge to move forward. In addition, the filmmakers skillfully use jagged patterns to capture flashes of his influences (films, books, Tintin Comics), anything to help us see his life the way he did it; for long journeys it is fast, fun and eye-opening.
At some point, however, “Roadrunner” has to work through to his darkness, his doubts, his addiction and of course his death. You don’t feel like Neville is avoid it definitely does – Bourdain’s very first voiceover states that it is considered “therapeutic and enlightened to think about death for a few minutes a day” – but neither does he rush to it. And immediately after the energetic opening credits, another piece of his archive audio warns: “It won’t have a happy ending.” In this way, the filmmaker recognizes the shadow that lies over the entire company, there and elsewhere (in one terrifying clip he admits “momentary fantasies of harming others … or myself”). But the structural choices – starting with him as a celebrity and just quickly and half-heartedly looking back at his previous addictions and problems – make the picture slippery. The motivations and consequences seem to some extent like a can of worms that Neville isn’t entirely sure how to open.
The film counts as best it can on the regrets of those it has left behind. A group of friends, lovers, colleagues and co-workers are interviewed, many of whom are convinced that they (and they alone) could have flipped a switch and saved it at the last minute. But of course it doesn’t work that way. And others linger on his last relationship with the actor and filmmaker Asia Argento (she is discussed, but especially not interviewed), who in the end is not exactly seen as a source of positive energy, and his codependence on her is portrayed as a ticking bomb.
Bourdain has said so much in the course of his life (in interviews, television commentaries, audio books) that he can tell his own story from the Great Beyond. And during focus time, he spent most of his life in front of the camera. So you have all of this footage, so much of it snazzy B-roll that suddenly gets re-contextualized when you know what he’s been through emotionally and psychologically. It was the kind of life that seems built to be documented; “I’m happiest when life is like a movie,” he says to Argento, who cleverly replies: “You’re happiest with an illusion.”
The basic, perhaps inevitable, flaw of the film is that Neville is also in love with the same fantasy. His films tend to be optimistic, comfortable; he is most at home and conveys the joy of “20 Feet From Fame” or the warmth of “Don’t you want to be my neighbor?” And there is a lot of that here, but it can only go so far. Ultimately, he just can’t quite take the demons who drove Bourdain into his arms; in this darkness he always feels like a tourist who empathizes but doesn’t really understand this pain. (You can’t help but wonder what someone likes Asif Kapadiawho helmed “Amy” and “Senna”, could have done with this material.)
On the other hand, it might be stupid to ask a film or filmmaker to help us understand this level of personal tragedy. “Roadrunner” gives us another opportunity to enjoy the company of this Renaissance man, indulge in his sociability, travel with him and laugh with him (and occasionally at him). In the best case, it does what Bourdain’s job did: “Roadrunner” makes you want to get on a plane, discover a new place, a new culture, eat well and make new friends. What could be more valuable? [B]
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