Updated: Jul 16, 2021
The life of Anthony Bourdain is one of a no BS, full take on all life has to offer. Tracing the early days of his breakout book "Kitchen Confidential" to his TV career and finally, his suicide, Mogan Neville's documentary Roadrunner aims to capture it all. His suicide in 2018, during the shooting on new episodes in northeastern France, was shocking to many of his fans but also fitting for a man whose punk spirit meant he wanted to end his story his way.
It is hard then not to expect an explanation into the why from Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. Neville creates a thoroughly engaging deep-dive into the allure the man had and why his desire to keep exploring and explaining the world around him kept him from a so-called "normal" life. Neville has assembled many key people close to Bourdain and they all give candid interviews. Mixed with the huge amount of footage of Bourdain, the documentary is often a moving tribute to Bourdain's talent and wit. It is only when it begins to probe at trying to explain his suicide that the documentary gets to some troubling places.
One of the curious things about Roadrunner is that it confirms how honest Bourdain was in his TV work. If you are familiar with No Reservations, then you know the brilliance of Bourdain's work. He put everything he had into those shows and was as candid as he could be. Therefore, Roadrunner can only celebrate this rather than create its own success. You can't capture the inner turmoil Bourdain had.
Kudos to Neville for the pacing and energy with which the first two-thirds of this documentary has. Neville aims to demystify Bourdain a bit and I am not sure he is ever successful on that front. The film is best when celebrating Bourdain's life. It is at its worst during its third act when it tries to parse through the motivation for his suicide. The film is ethically questionable here as it traces the relationship Bourdain had with actress Asia Argento. Argento is not interviewed for the film and it is unknown as to why not. She is in the film plenty. It would seem from the outside that Argento made Bourdain very happy in his final months. He found renewed energy as he became a public voice in the $MeToo movement in support of Argento's refusal to stay quiet about Harvey Weinstein raping her. However, Roadrunner soon indulges in several stories from his former collaborators about how his suicide was a desperate act of revenge when the relationship went south. Neville never outrightly blames Argento but the film comes dangerously close to implying such without having her side represented. It made me queasy in the way it gives credence to secondhand accounts and exploits the situation for an easy explanation for such a complex thing as suicide.
Aside from that, Neville really does do a nice job here of giving us a window into Bourdain. He wisely draws comparisons to Bourdain's former heroin addiction to the addiction he has for experiencing the edges of life. I also loved the insights into Bourdain's love of cinema and how that colored his life and desires. Roadrunner is a mixed bag, at once lovingly celebrating this original figure while being steeping in troubling implications.