Monday, July 12, 2021

Nate Hood on Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021) ★★★★

This day was always going to come. Anthony Bourdain was too important, too beloved, and his suicide too tragic for there not to be a high-profile documentary about him. Inspired by the outlaw writers and musicians he idolized in his youth, Bourdain first gained prominence by shocking the culinary and publishing worlds with his 2000 autobiography/tell-all Kitchen Confidential where he revealed the seedy inner workings of haute cuisine kitchens. Confused by his overnight celebrity, Bourdain nevertheless parlayed his success into another book deal to be written concurrently with a Food Network television show. Armed with an abrasive foul-mouth, a no-nonsense New Yawk attitude, and a boundless, sincere compassion for people, food, and culture, Bourdain quickly became the patron saint of travel television, spending the next twenty years bouncing across networks and four wildly popular shows. 

Unlike his contemporaries, Bourdain seldom limited himself to exploring the food of foreign cultures; he was a chronicler of the human condition in all its joyous, heartbreaking, and infuriating facets. A visit to Cambodia could focus as much on victims of American imperialism and the evils of Henry Kissinger as it could the local seafood. A vegan/vegetarian luncheon in Los Angeles could lead to an impassioned diatribe about said lifestyles being First World luxuries enjoyed by rich white yuppies who happily demonize Third World populations for eating meat to survive. Tuning in to one of his programs, one could expect anything from a tour of El Bulli in Spain to a tirade about how illegal Mexican immigrants formed the backbone of American restaurants. He was a man who could find as much pleasure and beauty in a bowl of noodles eaten on a Vietnam street corner as he did a 3 Michelin star tasting menu. In just a few short years, Bourdain emerged as a man who could rage against international injustice with the fire of a biblical prophet yet break bread with the poorest and meekest paupers like a saint. And he did all of this while being compulsively watchable, endlessly engaging, and boundlessly creative.

And then, at the peak of his renown and success, he hung himself in 2018 while filming for CNN in France.

To say his death rocked the world would be an understatement. There were outpourings of grief from fellow chefs, television personalities, and even world leaders like Barack Obama, to say nothing about the general public. The shuttered storefront of Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan where he’d once worked as executive chef became a impromptu shrine for mourners who plastered the windows with messages about how he’d changed their lives. Many compared his unexpected and tragic death to Robin Williams, and certainly no other recent high-profile suicide so captured the public’s imagination.

So yes, this day was always going to come. There would be a film about Anthony Bourdain, and it was going to try and grapple with his death. Thankfully, the man who’d eventually take that assignment would be Morgan Neville, the respected and Academy Award-winning director of such crowd-pleasing biopics as 20 Feet from Stardom (2013) and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018). Those who might fear his decidedly talking heads heavy, middlebrow approach to documentary filmmaking might be surprised to find Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain one of the angriest, most tonally unstable biopics in recent history. The film’s no trite memorial, it’s an autopsy. It gets as messy and uncomfortable as the man himself.

It’s pointless to recount the ground Neville covers for most of the runtime, as it more or less follows the standard biographical details of Bourdain’s life anyone could glean for themselves from an afternoon on Wikipedia or a weekend watching clips of his shows on YouTube: his unexpected literary and television success starting in his forties, his tumultuous life on the road, his gradual emergence as pop culture phenomenon and political rabble-rouser, the dissolution of his various marriages. Where the film truly becomes extraordinary is in its desperate and ultimately futile attempts to reconstruct a psychological profile of the man, not just in his final weeks but in his preceding two decades of celebrity. What emerges is the portrait of an enigmatic man equal parts mercurial and saturnine, gregarious and aloof. We learn that he was capable of boundless warmth and casual cruelty such as when he offhandedly told friend and fellow chef David Chang that he wouldn’t be a good father. Neville interviews several members of his long-time road crew who worked with him for years, and his findings are heartbreaking. Several like producer Helen M. Cho are still visibly angry with Bourdain over both his death and his treatment of his “inner circle” in the last years of his life. Talks with Bourdain’s close friends fare little better. Neville finds some of them like celebrity chef Éric Ripert still in a state of stunned disbelief and others like artist David Choe still in mourning (the latter confesses to not having cut his hair or beard since he died).

One of the film’s most uncomfortable (but not unmerited) conclusions was that Bourdain, a former heroin addict, spent the years after kicking his habit satisfying his need for a fix with other pursuits, each of which consumed him like a narcotic and left a trail of broken relationships in his wake. At first, these obsessions emerged organically from his overnight celebrity: his love of traveling and making television led to a psychotic road schedule that saw him away from home 250 days a year. Of course his second marriage would fall apart under that strain. But as the years went by his newfound compulsions became more curiously specific and the effects on those around him more unpredictable. By the time he began dating Asia Argento in 2017 he was exasperating his friends and colleagues with his bizarre, erratic behavior. And though none of them admit it, a chilling sense emerges from the interviews that many people suspected Bourdain was self-destructing.

Which isn’t to say that the film is overwhelmingly despairing. There are moments of joy and happiness, mostly revolving around Bourdain’s relationship with his daughter Ariane (who is conspicuously missing from the interview peanut gallery). But much like the crime fiction writers and arthouse directors Bourdain adored, Neville infuses even these sequences with an undeniable melancholy. One of the most powerful moments in the film details his first forays into fatherhood set to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s theme from Nagisa Ōshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), a move one imagines Bourdain would’ve loved even more than an early montage of pre-television Tony prowling the streets of Manhattan set to Television. As I said earlier, this film isn’t a memorial, it’s an autopsy. Neville wants to know what went wrong in Bourdain’s life, and one can’t do that by dwelling overlong in its happiest parts.

When the film finally does address Bourdain’s suicide, it does so in a way I’m not entirely comfortable with. Using circumstantial evidence from his last Instagram story and a reported conversation with one of his friends, Neville hypothesizes that Bourdain hung himself after seeing tabloid photos of his beloved Asia possibly cheating on him. This is both unfair and salacious, particularly since a) the film doesn’t reach out to Asia to get her side of the story, and b) it sidesteps its own evidence that Bourdain had clearly been suffering from suicidal ideation for some time prior to his death. It’s an unfortunate misstep that mars but doesn’t discredit the overall film since it’s more interested in examining the larger miasma of disbelief and anger surrounding his passing than in clinically determining the causes of it. Here, after all, is a film that includes a photo of David Chang with his children during the end credits almost as a posthumous kiss-off responding to what Bourdain had told him about being a bad father. The Asia angle is clearly the film grasping at straws for an explanation, but so is everyone else featured in it. And so, I suppose, are the rest of us three years later. I know I am.

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