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Send It Back: How Roadrunner Fails Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain shot to stardom after the release of his memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. He was 44 years old at the time and was unprepared for how drastically his life would change after its publication. He became one of the most well-known names in both the world of film and television, releasing several more books and hosting multiple travel and food shows. At what seemed to be the height of his popularity, Bourdain died by suicide a few weeks shy of his 62nd birthday. Since then many have grappled with the legacy he left behind, and the mystery of his sudden departure. 

When I first saw the trailer for Morgan Neville’s documentary "Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” I was excited, but hesitant. It felt a bit too soon and I’d been burned recently with two Bourdain book projects. In 2019, CNN put out a book from Ecco called Anthony Bourdain Remembered, which was a collection of memories about Bourdain shared by fans, celebs, and friends after his passing. A glorified picture book, the volume has no credited author or editor. Earlier this year, his longtime assistant Laurie Woolever completed a manuscript based on a taped conversation that the two had for a travel guide, also published by Ecco. The result, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide shines when Bourdain’s voice comes through via transcribed voice-overs from his shows. However, at nearly 500 pages, the book is a slog and feels nothing like the rest of the books written by Bourdain. Both books felt like cheap ways to cash in on his name. 

Enter Morgan Neville’s doc, which to me felt a bit like watching “I Am Not Your Negro” in that if you had read the James Baldwin books that Raoul Peck used as source material it was not quite as impactful if this was all new information to you. Except that it’s clear from the get-go that Peck has a deep understanding of Baldwin as a man, as a writer, as an ethos. Morgan Neville does not display the same connection to his subject. "Roadrunner" does not add any greater insight into the man or the myth beyond what Bourdain had already revealed in his books, in his interviews, and in his shows. One of the most heartfelt bits of the doc is pulled directly from the “Parts Unknown” Miami episode with Iggy Pop. Filmed in 2015, the two iconoclasts share truly heartfelt, and hard worn truths that come with aging. Emotionally, I’m sure it’s much more impactful if you’ve never seen the episode, but for me it felt like a cheap pull without a credit to where the footage originally appeared or when it was filmed.

I have read most of Bourdain’s books, as well as many of his final interviews, and those give a better picture into who he was, especially towards the end. At times, the talking heads assembled add insight through their observations of Tony the man, but often it seems as though they’re trying to craft a truth as if you can ever have a true portrait of anyone. The way that Neville elicits tearful breakdowns from his subjects feels borderline exploitative. 

For a man who had basically three major romantic relationships in his life, to only get the point of view of one of the women adds a strange bias to the framing of the rest. One person refers to his relationship with his first wife—his high school sweetheart, a woman he was with for 30 years, through pretty much all of his drug addicted years—as a Sid & Nancy relationship. What a thing to say and then not have any footage with this woman! In his book Medium Raw, Bourdain comments on his first marriage stating, “Of my first marriage, I’ll say that watching Gus Van Sant’s 'Drugstore Cowboy'—particularly the relationship between Matt Dillon’s Bob and Kelly Lynch’s Dianne—inspires feelings of great softness and sentiment in me.” For those familiar with Van Sant’s film, Bob and Dianne are co-dependent drug addicts, but unlike Sid and Nancy no one dies. It feels overly sensational to allude to such a famously destructive couple when Bourdain himself had been open about their relationship in a much less tabloidesque way. 

The entire segment in "Roadrunner" around his relationship with Asia Argento and the episode they directed together is done with such a distasteful exposé, tabloid style that my stomach churned. Talking head after talking head explain that Bourdain cutting people off in the wake of #MeToo was irrational. That he didn’t allow for shades of grey. But he spoke openly and wrote a lot about the reckoning he had with himself and the toxic environments he had glorified. In a 2017 piece on his Medium blog, he wrote openly about the sexual misconduct allegations towards friends and colleagues Mario Batali and Ken Friedman. Bourdain ended the piece with words of deep reflection, “To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.”

The doc uses a clip from a 2018 interview with Trevor Noah in which he says he is “Ming the Merciless” in cutting off old acquaintances to underscore the irrationality of his behavior. However, earlier in that same interview he shared, “... like a lot of men, I’m re-examining my life. I, you know, I wrote sort of the meathead Bible for us, restaurant employees and chefs. And, you know, I look back like, I hope, a lot of men in that industry, and say, not so much what did I do or not do, but what did I see, and what did I let slide ... what did I not notice?” 

Bourdain did not just cut people out of his life in a fervor because his latest partner was affected by it. He truly found a reckoning within himself that shook him to the core. From the way it is framed in the doc you’d think he latched on to #MeToo like it was a fad he was following because his girlfriend told him to. 

Further, as they go deeper into the days and weeks before Bourdain’s death and its aftermath, it feels as though Neville and those interviewed were trotting out the most dated and harmful tropes about suicide, setting Asia Argento up as a tipping point. One producer implied his final Instagram story—which used the theme song from a movie about a man getting revenge on a woman—was evidence that that was what he was doing on his final day. Horrid. The level-headedness of the few people who said that this was Bourdain’s decision, that this was his act and his act alone, are undercut by the way this sequence is edited to truly set her up as a villain. 

Then, as his friends and family discuss the aftermath, Neville chooses to include dangerous attitudes about suicide. One person says “what are we supposed to do now," implying that suicide is a selfish option. The entire segment does exactly that without ever saying it. As if we owe our life to those we let in it. As if our decisions must always factor in how it will affect others. I don’t believe that and I never will. There is still such a stigma around suicide, and this sequence definitely has not done anything to change the way we think about it. The film surely does not have any insights into what it is to be at that crossroads, or to be someone who lives their entire life with suicidal ideation lingering in the back of their brain.

"Roadrunner" ends by discussing Bourdain as a romantic, as someone who always set himself up for disappointment because he learned about life only from the movies. This theme is so haphazardly shown via film clips from his favorite films and some of his shows that were shot to imitate them, but this observation feels incredibly shallow. For the most part, the films are stripped of their context. Another shot taken out of context from the Miami episode of “Parts Unknown” shows Tony standing with an almost vacant expression while a wild party rages around him. An homage to Paolo Sorrentino’s film “The Great Beauty,” that movie opens with a quote from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” A quote that could itself be a thesis into the way Bourdain lived his life if the film bothered to dig beyond a surface interpretation of his work. 

In the end, all of the emotion displayed by participants rings hollow. It's not that the tears for Bourdain’s life aren’t real, but the way the filmmakers elicit them from the participants and package them feels less like a loving tribute to a man no one ever fully knew, and more like vultures picking the last meat off his bones.

Marya E. Gates

Marya E. Gates is a freelance film and culture writer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. She studied Comparative Literature at U.C. Berkeley, and also has an overpriced and underused MFA in Film Production. Other bylines include Moviefone, The Playlist, Crooked Marquee, Nerdist, and Vulture. 

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