Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is aptly subtitled: This is not a documentary about food, or about traveling the world, although food and travel shots abound—but rather an autopsy of one man’s life. Anthony Bourdain’s story—that of a middle-class kid turned junkie turned line cook turned chef turned bestselling author turned beloved globetrotting TV star—is already familiar to many. A documentary about him could have been a clip show of the weirdest things he ate, the most famous people he ate with, the most spectacular places he visited, and the many regular lives he touched. Fortunately, that is not the film Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) has chosen to make. Bourdain’s shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown were and remain highly watchable, but Roadrunner is not an easy film to watch, nor to process in hindsight.
“He committed suicide, the fucking asshole,” the artist John Lurie says in an interview three minutes in, setting the tone for all that follows. Like so many fans, I found Bourdain’s death three years ago shattering, but it didn’t occur to me to reconsider the demands and difficulties of his life. I deeply admired his shows, his books, his public persona, the lifestyle and values he modeled, his candor in interviews, and of course his taste in food—everything about him seemed aspirational. Without questioning Bourdain’s goodness or greatness, Roadrunner confronts us with the human costs of a remarkable public life, especially one powered by personal demons. The qualities that made Bourdain so relatable to so many—the addictive personality, the world-weariness, the charisma masking shyness, the snark masking empathy and sensitivity, the total contempt for phoniness, and the anxiety that he himself might be a phony—all seem to foreshadow his fate. Neville also offers glimpses of a Bourdain we’ve never seen before—a very ordinary, loving, all-American paterfamilias grilling poolside, at peace with himself—and captures the toll that the work of showing us the world took on him.
Drawing on vast troves of footage produced over nearly two decades of TV appearances, Neville is able to make Bourdain a posthumous narrator of his own life, accompanied by interviewees such as Bourdain’s second wife, Ottavia Busia—the mother of his only child—as well as multiple former members of his TV crew and friends like chefs David Chang and Eric Ripert and artists Lurie and David Choe. Bourdain himself was fixated on death and joked frequently about his own, which might be one reason why none of Neville’s interviewees seem entirely blindsided by how things turned out, even as they remain traumatized by it. Choe says Bourdain “disappointed” him, while a former producer recounts telling his 7-year-old son in the aftermath that he can always talk to someone if he’s in crisis. Philippe Lajaunie, the restaurateur who accompanied Bourdain on his first trip to Vietnam—the country that seemed to make him happiest—decides to relocate there permanently in the wake of the suicide. In the face of the unbearable, Neville gives these people room to voice affection, grief, and anger.
The day Bourdain died, I wrote that he “had the life many of us dream about,” but the truth is that traveling the world 250 days of the year when you have a wife and a young kid at home in New York is a punishing schedule, no matter how much foie gras you get to taste along the way. Bourdain was in his early forties when he became an overnight celebrity after publishing Kitchen Confidential, his bestselling tell-all memoir of the restaurant industry, in 2000. By that point, he had kicked his substance addictions, become a modestly successful if undistinguished executive chef at Les Halles, and been married to his high school sweetheart for 15 years. Appearing on Oprah and Letterman utterly remade his life: Within five years, Bourdain had become a TV star, quit the restaurant industry, and ended his marriage. His brother Christopher describes him as reborn in the wake of Kitchen Confidential’s success. Multiple interviewees characterize Bourdain as obsessive; in the absence of heroin or cocaine, he would throw himself completely into figuring out how to be an on-screen personality, or immersing himself in the different cultures he encountered, or learning jiujitsu in his late fifties. This seems to have been his approach to celebrity itself, and for all the people he inspired and all he learned about the world along the way, it’s not at all clear that wealth and fame were in his own best interest.
The high point of Bourdain’s life seems to have been his second marriage, to Busia, during which his daughter, Ariane, now 14, was born. Ariane didn’t speak for the documentary, but we do see some footage of her at a much younger age, playing with her adoring father. This, Roadrunner suggests, was one life Bourdain could have chosen. But the filming schedule for his travel shows meant that he frequently wasn’t present, and the marriage broke down, albeit on what Busia says were amicable terms. One friend speculates that the marriage to Busia was a healthy digression from the dangerous trajectory of most of Bourdain’s life, and that things really started to go wrong following their divorce.
The final act of the film, and of Bourdain’s life, centers around his relationship with the Italian actress and director Asia Argento. Argento is not interviewed, though several of Bourdain’s friends and former colleagues talk about the couple—none of them fondly. By all of their accounts, Bourdain threw himself into his relationship with Argento with the same obsessiveness he brought to everything he did. His former crew members recall an episode filmed in Hong Kong in 2018 that he invited Argento to guest direct; she brought an avant-garde filmmaker’s sensibility to Parts Unknown that clashed with the established formula. When a loyal longtime cameraman disagreed with one of Argento’s decisions, Bourdain fired him immediately, leaving the rest of his crew demoralized; this was not the person they thought they were working for. Bourdain also became an outspoken public advocate of the #MeToo movement—Argento was among Harvey Weinstein’s accusers—and one of his crew members claims that he cut off many people in his life over old remarks they had made that clashed with his new, crusading persona.
One detail this mostly unflinching film does not address is The New York Times’ report in August 2018, two months after Bourdain’s death, that in 2017 Argento had paid $380,000 to a former co-star who had accused her of sexually assaulting him in 2013 when he was a minor. (In a statement, Argento acknowledged the payment but called the assault allegation “absolutely false.”) According to the Times, “Bourdain helped Ms. Argento navigate the matter,” and the two shared a lawyer. Neville does not reference this story at all, much less attempt to investigate how much Bourdain knew or how he reconciled it with his very public advocacy against sexual misconduct.
In an already emotionally fraught film, the scenes about Argento are especially trying. They hint at the tensions surrounding an unresolved and bitterly contested scandal, one Bourdain himself will never be able to account for. But for whatever reason, Neville does not reckon with one of the larger mysteries Bourdain left behind, which makes Roadrunner’s coverage of the Argento relationship uncomfortable to watch—and to write about.
Everyone in the documentary agrees that Bourdain struggled with mental health problems throughout his life, long before he was famous. In footage taken from an episode he recorded on the beaches of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he spent summers as a youth, Bourdain wistfully acknowledges that drugs and hedonism were a way to rebel against his perfectly decent, boring middle-class childhood with a loving family—something the film repeatedly emphasizes that he wished he could have recreated for his own child. According to his longtime producers, at one point he approached them with a desperate desire to walk away from Parts Unknown and fully commit to his loved ones, and they told him to go for it—but instead he sat still, paralyzed with fear, unable or unwilling to walk away from the adventure his work had become.
One crew member recalls that toward the end of his life, Bourdain remarked that in his ideal version of the show, he himself would be invisible, and viewers would experience the world through his eyes without seeing or hearing him at all. That would not likely have been the show that most of his fans would want to watch; we wanted to see the world, yes, but we also wanted to see it specifically with Bourdain as our guide. That he saw himself as extraneous to the experience is as tragic as it is revealing.
I won’t spoil the note on which Roadrunner ends, except to say that Neville and his interviewees have thought carefully about how Bourdain himself would have wanted to be remembered—not as an icon or a role model or a martyr to his own psychic torment but as an obnoxious, irreverent, and painfully human figure. Bourdain, we’re reminded, took us not only to Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo and Paris but to an active war zone in Lebanon, to meet with an amputee survivor of the U.S. bombing campaign in Laos, and to earthquake-ravaged Haiti—and in doing so, he forced comfortable viewers to witness human suffering. With Roadrunner, Neville forces us to witness a different kind of human suffering—that of Bourdain himself, and that of everyone he left behind.