The opening words of dialogue from Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain come from the former cook/globetrotter himself. “It is considered useful, enlightening, and therapeutic to think about death for a few minutes a day.” Death is a certainty for all of us, no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from it. It’s only the hope that we can fill our lives with as much purpose as possible. Anthony Bourdain took us through distant lands; far and wide, like a tall, charismatic tour guide with shows such as “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” He assimilated himself into different cultures and cuisines with a voracity to learn as we did. So, how could a man that had the world as his conquest decide to take his own life?
Pertaining to suicide, sometimes, there are no answers. Something that the people interviewed for the documentary seemed to struggle with. A man who gave a lifetime of stories left without telling one final one. It’s a question that Roadrunner doesn’t attempt to solve, as the date of June 8th, 2018 still feels raw. Rather, director Morgan Neville strives to provide insight into the man behind the brilliant written words and monologues. With a mixture of his own words, archival footage, and accounts from friends, colleagues, ex-wives, and more, Roadrunner begins in 1999 and doesn’t so much go into Bourdain’s childhood days. Bourdain as a chef in NY was embarking on writing his first book, “Kitchen Confidential.” His early heroes comprised musicians and writers. (this film has musicians such as Iggy Pop, Josh Homme, and Alison Mosshart who were friends with Bourdain). He would embody a punk rock, “big nerd,” trailblazing spirit that would catapult him to the NY Times best-sellers list and television screens all over.
It’s hard to believe that Bourdain could be shy, but Neville displays the evolution of his genius from his very beginnings. On his first trip to Japan, his creative partner Chris Collins described Bourdain as “very shy” and “not a traveler.” The following trip to Vietnam is where Bourdain would be less cynical and embrace the persona we all know. Thus, his wanting to turn the “junk food” of reality television into something substantive. He was quoted as saying that the “greatest sin is mediocrity,” and handled his shows in that way. What was at first a gateway for his creativity, turned into something even more important in his trips to Lebanon and Haiti. Those experiences are shown to have changed him to see that the world is not as rosy. While he was venturing on these journeys trying to be a better person, it was his mission to use himself as a living microphone for the underprivileged.
Bourdain worked on shows for 250 days a year, but valued the time with family that he had. At some point, his thirst for travel completely consumed him, and everything else withered into the background. He was on a constant search of what home meant to him. Was it in the sands of the Sahara desert or in a small, rundown plane flying through the Congo? It feels as though the connective tissue in Roadrunner is that he didn’t know. There grew an aching to be normal and a search of what that would mean. As a heroin addict, one addiction turned into another; whether it be Jujitsu or the constant rush of going to a new place. Pretty soon, these things didn’t provide the solace that Bourdain desired and the things that lit that fire within him burned out.
By the third act of Roadrunner, the view of Bourdain completely unravels to depict a man who wanted to retreat. As described in a meeting with Collins and other creative partner, Lydia Tenaglia, he wanted to quit “Parts Unknown,” but was unable to leave his seat. Thus, there was a search in his last days to insert himself into things he could be passionate about. Whether it be in a relationship with actress Asia Argento or the #metoo movement, when Bourdain latched on to something, he gave all of himself. Unfortunately, there was little left that he kept. That’s the conundrum that Neville presents through all the stories and home videos comprised in this documentary. What we hear feels like recalling a larger-than-life figure. However, the tragedy lies that he somehow couldn’t stay in one place for too long. His passion turned into isolation.
As Roadrunner ends, there’s sadness, anger, and a bit of trademark Bourdain humor to it. Some of his friends and family don’t want him to be defined by his last act. A couple were disappointed that he could have even done it – even going to say, “he let me down.” With such an abrupt ending to a life like Bourdain’s, there’s always going to be that question that shakes those who looked up to him. Maybe shaking our proverbial cores and causing a bit of self-reflection. Is having it all (or appearing to be) all it’s cracked up to be? Neville paints an intimate and intriguing portrait of a man who lived what we would consider above normal. But he would have given everything to experience what normalcy could be for more than a spurt at a time. If this dichotomy didn’t exist, what would be of the legend and life of Anthony Bourdain?
Photo Credit: Focus Features