Review: Roadrunner is a documentary farewell to the chef who made cooking hip

Kurt Loder on

"Here's a little preemptive truth-telling," says Anthony Bourdain, blowing the plot right at the top of "Roadrunner," his posthumous bio-doc. "There's no happy ending."

By now, everybody knows that Bourdain ended his life -- hanged himself -- in 2018, in a hotel room in a cute French wine town where he had been filming an installment of his popular CNN food-and-travel show, "Parts Unknown. It was the end of a rocket-ride life, from heroin-addicted kitchen rat to executive chef of a Manhattan brasserie to celebrity author of a tell-all restaurant memoir. That best-selling book, Kitchen Confidential, was full of surprising advice (never order fish on a Monday, never eat well-done meat) and plainly stated prejudices ("You can dress brunch up with all the focaccia, smoked salmon, and caviar in the world, but it's still breakfast"). The book propelled Bourdain into television, which, given his gift for snappy writing and his endearing punk-rock presence, was clearly where he belonged.

For 16 years he ate his way around the world, sampling everything from Puerto Rican mofongo to Vietnamese cobra blood and, in Iceland, disgusting fermented shark. By the time of his death, he had accumulated a sizeable trove of slickly shot footage, much of it unaired. This gave Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville ("20 Feet from Stardom") a lot to work with in making this unexpectedly moving new documentary.

We meet two Anthony Bourdains here: the fun-hog friend of rock stars (Iggy Pop and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age appear in the film) and famous fellow chefs (Eric Ripert, David Chang); the lifelong book lover (Hemingway, Burroughs, and Hunter Thompson were among his favorite authors); and passionate cinephile (the film includes clips from Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" and Werner Herzog's "Aguirre, the Wrath of God").

The other Anthony Bourdain is a darker character. As his globe-trotting TV shows made him wealthy, he became conflicted, convinced he was undeserving of his renown. He loved his peripatetic celebrity, but after his second wife, Ottavia, gave birth to a daughter they named Ariana, he discovered that he loved staying home with his little girl, too -- until the road started calling again. "Nothing feels better than going home," says Josh Homme. "And nothing is better than leaving home."

As the film progresses, we hear rumblings of Bourdain's inner torments. "Is it worse to be someplace awful when you're by yourself," he asks a friend, "or someplace really nice that you can't share with anyone." Talking to a therapist for some sort of shoot, we hear him discussing his "manic" personality and occasional thoughts of hurting people, and we hear the therapist asking if he'd like to try to change. "I think it's too late," Bourdain says.


Bourdain admirers contend that his downfall was meeting Italian actress and director Asia Argento in 2016. This was a whirlwind infatuation. He brought her onboard a Parts Unknown shoot in Rome as a special guest, and later, in Hong Kong, installed her in the directors chair (much to the resentment of his longtime crew). Before long they were a tabloid item. The romance apparently cooled, however, and by the time Bourdain arrived in France for the last shoot of his life, magazines featuring photos of Argento embracing another man were everywhere. ("He cheated on me, too," she later said.)

Director Neville chose not to interview Argento, worried that her testimony, or perhaps her tears, would unbalance the film, to no purpose. I'd say he's right about that.


Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate, Inc.



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