Morgan Neville’s Bourdain doc wastes time on what we know and ignores what we don’t
Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | July 8, 2021
Opens July 16
Imagine making a documentary about a Hemingwayesque chef and TV star who tore himself to pieces in autobiographical books that revealed his every flaw. Is there anything new to discover?
Based on Roadrunner, a doc about Anthony Bourdain directed by Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor), the answer is… no.
Roadrunner’s first half is wasted on a shallow dive into Bourdain’s upbringing and career as a chef (both covered thoroughly in the books Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw, and often referenced in the shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown). The second half is more interesting, as Neville attempts to make sense of the chef’s unravelling and untimely death. But the filmmaker inexplicably pulls his punches.
As presented in the film, Anthony Bourdain was a born communicator whose disarming candidness elevated him above his peers. His self-effacing demeanor and vast reserves of empathy made him instantly approachable. At the same time, Bourdain couldn’t stop moving and increasingly struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness (the film suggests bipolar disorder). How do you quit heroin cold turkey? By replacing one addiction with another, then another, then another.
Roadrunner eventually tackles the root of Bourdain’s unhappiness but it’s haphazard and senselessly abstract. Interviewees throw hypothesis like darts (addictive personality, inability to stay still, divorce, agoraphobia, detachment) but Neville fails to make a case for any of them. Through unaired footage we get to witness an increasingly erratic Bourdain struggle through shooting Parts Unknown’s last season. Perhaps that would have been enough.
By his own admission, Morgan Neville (an Oscar winner for the bland 20 Feet from Stardom) didn’t pursue an interview with Asia Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend in the last months of his life. Regardless whether her testimony would have been salacious or illuminating, documentary filmmakers should pursue every avenue. One key question goes unanswered: did Bourdain suspect the relationship would end badly from the beginning? Did he set himself up?
While Argento and Bourdain’s first wife Nancy Putkoski are glaring absences, Neville scores a few strong interviewees: the Parts Unknown production team, restauranteur David Chang, chef Éric Ripert (the last person to see Tony alive) and Ottavia Busia, the mother of Bourdain’s only child. More than one makes it clear they won’t discuss Tony again, thus making Roadrunner even more of a wasted opportunity.
The doc’s strongest section comes at the end. Not Bourdain’s suicide or the speculation around it, but the lasting anger among Tony’s friends and family over his decision: no note, no explanation. One of them describes his final act as “cruel”. This is where the movie was supposed to be. Instead, the overall outcome with all the filler early on feels sanctioned and official. Tony Bourdain was anything but.