Morgan Neville directs a brutally honest documentary about the chef/author/travel show host whose enviable life masked inner torment.
When someone chooses to end their life, even if they’re open about their mental health struggles, it’s still often a shock to their friends and loved ones, who will then wrack their brains and agonize over whether they missed a sign that it was coming. The question always arises: how could they do that? They had so much to live for. They had so many people who cared about them. We’ve learned some pretty harsh lessons in the past decade about “what kind of person” commits suicide, first with Robin Williams in 2014, and then someone else who truly seemed to know how to grab life by the balls, Anthony Bourdain, in 2018. Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner is a moving film about Bourdain, arguably the most important modern travel documentarian, and his internal conflict over having a life most people only dream of, while feeling like he didn’t really deserve it.
Roadrunner carefully balances itself, neither going out of its way to lionize or throw mud at its subject. Neville portrays Bourdain honestly as prickly, arrogant and cynical, and perhaps a little too in love with his initial “bad boy of cuisine” image. But he was also a good friend, by all accounts a decent, loving husband, a dedicated father (or at least, he tried to be, when his depression made that difficult), and deeply curious about the world, in a way that was both fascinating and inspiring. While most travel shows, particularly those centered on food, focus on expensive, tourist-friendly destinations like Paris or Provence, Bourdain was just as willing (if not eager) to travel to less glamorous locales, like Libya or the Congo. Despite his arrogant persona, Bourdain was humble in his travels, making friends with locals and eating what they ate. “Be a traveler, not a tourist,” was one of Bourdain’s famous quotes, and it particularly resonates knowing that he often felt restless and adrift in his life.
Interestingly, the film spends no time on Bourdain’s family or his youth, other than a quote from him stating that he had had a happy childhood, with loving parents. It starts with Bourdain, already in his mid-forties and after spending years as a chef at various high-end New York City restaurants, writing 2000’s Kitchen Confidential, a gritty but humorous tell-all about his profession. Kitchen Confidential (which inspired a short-lived TV show starring a very young Bradley Cooper) turned Bourdain into a celebrity overnight, though it didn’t stop him from harshly criticizing other celebrity chefs, like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray. Perceived as a rock star, only with knives instead of a guitar, Bourdain leaned into the persona.
Then, Roadrunner notes, he remade himself, marrying his second wife and fathering his only child, a daughter born when Bourdain was in his mid-fifties. Bourdain seems to be his happiest here, or at least, his most mellow, so mellow he even appeared on an episode of the preschool children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba. Then he moved on from celebrity chef to celebrity travel documentarian, and, finding it too dispiriting and too taxing to balance constant travel with a home life, separated from his wife and focused on his show full-time, a decision which seemed to haunt Bourdain for the rest of his life. He would remake himself one last time as an angry crusader in the #MeToo movement, thanks largely to his romantic relationship with actress Asia Argento, one of the first of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. His involvement in #MeToo, while commendable, also coincided with a final decline in Bourdain’s mental health, which would tragically result in his committing suicide in a hotel room in France, weeks before his 62nd birthday.
With compassion and empathy, Roadrunner portrays Bourdain as someone perpetually, hopelessly dissatisfied with his life, with a destructive addictive streak that made even healthy outlets like martial arts classes into something that took over his life. His friends, which include both fellow celebrity chefs and people who knew him since his pre-fame days, were often perplexed and frustrated by Bourdain, while still deeply loving him at the same time. It’s a remarkably human documentary, and one that soberingly illustrates the insidiousness of depression: no matter how good your life may be, particularly to the outside world, at the end of the day it’s just you and the voice in your head, telling you how unworthy of it you are.
So much of the last half of Bourdain’s life was on film or recorded audio that he’s practically a posthumous narrator. It’s also poignant how often Bourdain looks either deep in thought, sad, or even a little lost in the footage. One assumes he didn’t realize he was being filmed, but at times it seems as though he did, and this was his way of reaching out, and letting people know that things weren’t always what they seemed with him. Roadrunner isn’t just a moving look at a remarkable life, but an important film in the ongoing battle to understand mental illness, and how it doesn’t care about who you are, or how much money you make, or how famous you are. It’s a universal sickness. In an all too familiar observation, one of Bourdain’s friends notes “A lot of people loved him. He just didn’t believe it.”
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain premieres in theaters July 16th, and will air on HBO Max later this year.