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‘Roadrunner’ a heartbreaking portrait of Anthony Bourdain

July 12, 2021
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For two decades, Anthony Bourdain was an icon. From the publication of his 1999 best-selling memoir “Kitchen Confidential” through his evolution to culinary and cultural adventurer in his television work, Bourdain brought a combination of passion, intelligence and no-bulls—t attitude to the zeitgeist. He was coarse and foul-mouthed and utterly fascinated by the world around him, capturing what he experienced with a punk rock intimacy unlike anything we’d seen before.

When he took his own life in 2018 – on location in France to film, no less – people from all over the globe mourned the loss, even as many of them were left both shocked and somehow unsurprised that this was how the end of his story played out.

Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain” is an effort to delve deep into the mystique of the complicated figure that was Anthony Bourdain. Through a tight and thorough assemblage of archival footage and interviews, Neville finds a way in, presenting a sort of outsider’s introspection, a look within a man who was often moving far too fast to look within himself.

Through moments poignant, darkly funny and occasionally both, Neville puts together a portrait of a man whose combination of pop cultural wit and charismatic presence turned him into a star, even as he fought against the more shadowy impulses that drove him to reach the pinnacle, and perhaps ultimately, to his tragic demise.

Built out from a reported 100,000 hours of footage, “Roadrunner” largely eschews Bourdain’s earliest years, instead starting from the moment his star began to truly ascend. The chef from Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles became a literary sensation with the release of “Kitchen Confidential,” a book that led to him making the media rounds – a selection of which, up to and including Oprah, gives us a sense of the whirlwind.

Even then, the footage filmed at the time offers a glimpse at the charismatic screen presence he would ultimately become. His arresting angularity, his obvious wit, his genuine dearth of f—ks to give – it’s all already there, just waiting for the rest of the world to see it.

And the world would see it, just as he would see the world.

Through outtakes and other archival footage, it becomes clear that the Anthony Bourdain we saw on television bore a striking resemblance to who the man was. He was a seeker, a striver, traits that were obvious in every frame of film on which he appeared. But he was also someone who struggled to be satisfied, no matter how seemingly successful he appeared to those around him.

His evolution plays out before us, from the bumpy beginnings to the eventual ease that made him such an enthralling figure to watch. His ability to almost instantly establish a rapport, his aggressive empathy, allowed him (and by extension us) to find a closeness with people from all walks of life. That closeness carried over to the people around him, people who were as fiercely loyal to him as he was to them – even if they did occasionally bear the brunt of his wrathful perfectionism.

Throughout “Roadrunner,” Neville spends time with many of the people who were closest to Bourdain. There are assorted producing partners and crew members present, most of whom spent years if not decades working with him on his various projects. We spend time with a couple of his famous chef friends – Eric Ripert and David Chang foremost among them – and an assortment of the musicians and artists that were close to him. Perhaps most impactfully, we hear from Ottavia Bourdain, his second wife and the mother to his daughter.

We pointedly do not hear from Asia Argento, the Italian actress who was Bourdain’s last romantic partner. Her absence leads to a slight muddiness toward the film’s end; many of Bourdain’s colleagues viewed her as a less-than-healthy presence in his life and there are a few veiled insinuations with regard to their relationship vis-à-vis his suicide. It’s a bit of speculation that feels out of sorts with the rest of the film.

“Roadrunner” feints at closing out with a surprising bit of sentimentality before pivoting to an ending featuring the sort of subversion that the man himself almost certainly would have appreciated.

Morgan Neville is the ideal filmmaker to handle this story. His best-known documentary – the excellent “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” – is a thoughtful effort to learn about the human behind an iconic TV figure, one that also engages with the idea that sometimes, the person you see on the screen really is that person (more or less) in actuality. “Roadrunner” brings that same sort of energy to bear; there’s not a lot of overlap between the kiddie gentility of Fred Rogers to the go-to-hell ethos of Anthony Bourdain, but there’s no denying that both men were totally, authentically themselves.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of this incredibly heartbreaking film is the idea that Bourdain, a man who so deeply wanted and needed to be loved, couldn’t see the purity of feeling that emanated from those closest to him. The common thread amongst all the people who speak in this documentary is their sheer love for him. They loved him, flaws and all; if he could have allowed himself to see that, perhaps his story wouldn’t have taken such a tragic turn.

“Roadrunner” is a dense, intimate portrait of a brilliant, troubled man gone too soon. It digs into the essence of who he was and why he was so beloved by everyone close to him. Everyone, that is, save himself.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 12 July 2021 15:44

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