“What the fuck am I doin’ here?” asks Anthony Bourdain, via archival audio, early in Morgan Neville’s new documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” “I shall explain,” he continues, and so he does. The public outpouring of grief when Bourdain took his own life in 2018 was overwhelming; it was joined by some confusion because although he had always been forthcoming about his own demons and drives, his books and television shows conveyed such a palpable zest for living. But, of course, those things can co-exist, sometimes easily, for decades. Neville’s film attempts to reconcile them, not always successfully.
Neville begins in mid-ascent, circa 1999, with low-fi footage of the chef-turned-author as he’s riding the success of his first book and preparing to embark on his first series, scenes evocatively capturing Bourdain’s first flush of fame, and all the pleasures and headaches it simultaneously affords him. He’s a man at a crossroads; “My early heroes were adventurers and writers,” he explains. But we come to understand what a leap it was for him to become a world traveler because when he started doing it, he hadn’t really traveled that much and was not at all comfortable either on camera or in social situations with strangers. But he was curious — “the hungry ghost, searching and searching for whatever came next” — and he was adaptable, and he got very good, very fast.
These are the film’s best sections, keenly analyzing his evolution as both a person and a personality (while understanding, as he came to, the difference between the two). “It’s not about you being a travel guide,” his longtime collaborator Chris Collins remembers telling him. “It’s you being open to this experience.” And this became his operating principle: “I think it’s the least I can do is to see the world with open eyes.” But Neville’s film goes further, drilling down on how seeing the world changed him — how he felt about himself, and his work, and (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.”
The cutting (by Eileen Meyer and Aaron Wickenden) is simple but clever— jumping into his slipstream, trying to tell the story at his tempo, with relentless forward momentum. Moreover, the filmmakers adroitly use jagged cutting patterns to incorporate flashes of his influences (films, books, Tintin comics), all to help us see his life the way he did; for long stretches, it’s fast, and fun, and eye-opening.
Eventually, however, “Roadrunner” must work its way around to his darkness, his doubts, his addictions, and, of course, his death. One doesn’t get the sense that Neville is avoiding it, by any means — Bourdain’s very first voice-over notes that it is considered “therapeutic and enlightened to think about death a few minutes a day” — but he’s not rushing towards it either. And immediately after the energetic opening credits, another piece of his archival audio warns, “It’s not gonna have a happy ending.” Thus, the filmmaker acknowledges the shadow hanging over the entire enterprise, there and elsewhere (in one chilling clip, he admits “momentary fantasies of harming others… or myself”). But the structural choices — of beginning with him as a celebrity and only quickly and half-heartedly looking back at his earlier addictions and troubles — make the picture come off as slippery. The motivations and ramifications seem, to some extent, like a can of worms Neville isn’t quite sure how to open.
The film does reckon, as best it can, with the regrets of those he left behind. A coterie of friends, lovers, colleagues, and collaborators are interviewed, many of whom are convinced that they (and they alone) could’ve flipped a switch and saved him at the last minute. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. And others dwell on his last relationship, with the actor and filmmaker Asia Argento (she is discussed but, notably, not interviewed), who is not exactly seen as a source of positive energy at the end, and his co-dependency on her is framed as a bit of a ticking bomb.
Bourdain said so much over the course of his life (in interviews, television voice-overs, audiobooks) that he can narrate his own story from the Great Beyond. And over the course of the focal period, he lived most of his life on camera. So they have all this footage, so much of it snazzy B-roll that’s suddenly recontextualized when you know what he was going through through through, emotionally and psychologically. It was the kind of life that seems built to be documented; “I’m happiest when life is kind of like a film,” he tells Argento, who deftly replies, “You’re happiest with an illusion.”
The film’s fundamental, perhaps unavoidable flaw is that Neville is also enamored with that same fantasy. His films tend to be upbeat, feel-good affairs; he’s most at home conveying the joy of “20 Feet from Stardom” or the warmth of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” And there’s some of that here, but it can only go so far. Ultimately, he just can’t quite get his arms around the demons that drove Bourdain; he always feels like a tourist to that darkness, empathizing but not really understanding that pain. (One can’t help but wonder what someone like Asif Kapadia, who helmed “Amy” and “Senna,” could have done with this material.)
Then again, maybe asking any film or filmmaker to help us understand this level of personal tragedy is a fool’s errand. “Roadrunner” gives us another chance to enjoy the company of this renaissance man, to revel in his gregariousness, to join him for these journeys, and to laugh along with him (and, occasionally, at him). At its best, it does what Bourdain’s work did: “Roadrunner” makes you want to jump on a plane, discover a new place, a new culture, eat a great meal, and make a new friend. What could be more valuable? [B]