The epitome of the celebrity chef as culinary rock star, Anthony Bourdain gave off a seen-it-all, snorted-shot-and-survived-it-all vibe when he first came to the public’s attention — a New Yorker forged in the fires of upscale restaurants whose zen-punk personality helped turn his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential into a bestseller. (His monogrammed smock logo: a skull with a chef’s hat and a knife between its teeth.) Scratch any cynic, however, and, well, you know what you find lurking underneath. Once the chef-turned-author added “TV travel show host” to his resume, a different Tony started to emerge. After you’ve seen the world up close as opposed to serving the world from behind a busy kitchen line, one bowl of mushroom soup at a time, your perspective changes. Ditto becoming a parent. He was still the man who ate cobra hearts for the camera. But Bourdain was also a sensitive introvert, a doting father, and a die-hard romantic who, famous or not, harbored a lot of self-doubt.
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That’s the person filmmaker Morgan Neville is interested in: the Anthony Bourdain without the scare quotes around the name, the guy behind the gruff exterior, the restless enthusiast and ever-searching expander of horizons that friends and loved ones knew. You do not need a documentary to prove that the tour guide of No Reservations and Parts Unknown contained multitudes. Any viewer could see him mature and mellow out, or at the very least become more meditative, as seasons progressed. But Roadrunner, Neville’s portrait of the late, beloved Bourdain, would like to give those other sides a bit more screen time. The Teflon Tony of the early 21st century would transform into a curious cultural ambassador, a duty he took more seriously as time went on. He’d also blow up two marriages, burn bridges, and take his own life at the age of 61. The movie wants to celebrate the life of someone who left his mark. It also hopes to explore the gap between those two poles. That it only comes mildly close to succeeding in the latter respect doesn’t detract from the sheer pleasure of his company.
Sure, Roadrunner fawns over Bourdain’s bad-boy-of-the-amuse-bouche-set period — you get the tall, handsome tough guy with the already silvering pouf of hair and perma-dangling cigarette, in that first blush of celebrity, as “Marquee Moon” plays over a montage of bookstores and late-night bars. But Neville goes hard on it right off the bat and moves on ASAP. Once his producers Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins enter the picture and the TV era begins, you see how out of his element the former chef is. He doesn’t know how to be authentic in front of a camera, and authenticity was key to him — that, and being in control. (“It’s why all chefs are drunks,” he says in a circa 1999 clip. “We don’t understand why the world doesn’t work like our kitchens.”) Then, when the gig finally clicks for him, you start to recognize the Tony most of us now think of: the human passport with the adventurous palate and endless aphorisms.
New places, new experiences, new encounters sub in for Bourdain’s old adrenaline rushes. A second wife, Ottavia Busia, and a first child settle him down. And the movie settles into a groove of its own, with friends from the food world (Eric Ripert, David Chang), his TV crew, and the rock world (Josh Homme, the Kills’ Alison Mosshart) sharing anecdotes and space with home movies, series highlights, and the odd Apocalypse Now clip.
And yet: Forward momentum towards something else becomes the guiding factor in the late acts of Bourdain’s life, or at least that’s the thesis here. What, exactly, he was running to or from is a mystery the film either can’t solve or isn’t equipped to deal with, given how fresh the wounds still are among the participants. It’s likely not a coincidence that Roadrunner starts at the moment Bourdain’s public persona does, given how the pre-Confidential days are frustratingly glanced over. Tony’s brother talks a little about them loving Tintin comics growing up, and faded pics and voiceovers from the man himself attest to wanting to leave the safety of their suburban New Jersey home in search of danger. (At least, we think those are his voiceovers; given the staggering admission from Neville that A.I.-generated software was used to recreate Bourdain’s voice saying things he didn’t actually say, this could be another instance of twisted poetic license.) Then: rock-star montage, loud guitars, and, boom, he’s sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus, wearing a chef’s whites. A few steps may have been skipped here.
Bourdain does mention, while walking along the beach and reminiscing, that he picked up the allure of drugs from musicians and writers as a teen, but there isn’t much follow-up on the film’s part; it doesn’t interrogate how his addiction played into everything that followed. We learn little about his first wife, despite the fact that she and Tony were high school sweethearts and married for 20 years. Apparently, it was the tasting of an oyster that turned him into a young man beguiled by food, but don’t call it his Rosebud. There are no Rosebuds here.
So no, you don’t get insight into how he came to be the guy on the Kitchen Confidential book cover, giving you the double-dare stare. The subtitle of the doc is “A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” and the use of “about” versus “on” feels like a clue. Roadrunner is interested in the journey more than the origin story, even as it brings us to a final destination we don’t want to end up at. The introduction of Tony’s last girlfriend, the movie star Asia Argento, into his life is handled with kid gloves, lest a complicated person be reduced to a villainess. (She still doesn’t come off well, however, and Neville didn’t want to interview her for the film, which is understandable despite being a somewhat noticeable omission.) Argento is someone who seems to awaken the giddy, swooning teenager in him, as well as providing him with, in his eyes, a world of fresh possibilities and second (third? fourth?) chances at happiness. But we also get to see another, more telling side of Bourdain at this point: someone capable of casual cruelty, who could be emotionally needy, who left broken friendships and busted relationships in his wake.
“I’m dating a crazy Italian actress,” he informs a friend, followed by: “This will not end well.” And when things went south in their love affair, no one directly blames Argento for what happened next. The self-destructive tendencies were already there. To those who cared about him, the wounds of his loss still seem to have barely scabbed over.
It’s here that Roadrunner develops a deeper sense of why Bourdain’s story goes beyond bestselling books and being famous, in sharing the discoveries he made with everyone else. Bourdain was a romantic, but not just in terms of romance — he believed that humanity was capable of being saved, that learning about other cuisines would help us understand other cultures, that enlightenment and compassion was but a few bites away. It’s a portrait of an artist who took on the burden of being a beacon and, somewhere along the way, lost sight of the light himself. The word “seeker” comes up a lot here. So does the phrase “Tony would have hated that.” We end on his friend, the painter David Choe, defacing a mural of Tony in a joyous celebration of the man’s disdain for maudlin sentimentality. He transforms his own grief into violent, chaotic art. You have no idea what Bourdain would have thought of the rest of this ode, but you definitely get the feeling Bourdain would have loved that.
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