There’s a moment in the documentary “Roadrunner” that encapsulates the life Anthony Bourdain lived. The chef-turned-author-turned-traveler-turned-icon stands ankle-deep in a Borneo river, running red with the blood of an animal he has just slaughtered.
Then filmmaker Morgan Neville cuts immediately to Bourdain in a tuxedo, standing on a bright red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
How can one life contain so much? And how can one life contain so much, and still not make the person who lived it happy? Those are the questions Neville wrestles with in “Roadrunner,” now in theaters. If he doesn’t always provide the answers, Neville does deliver a complicated and engaging portrait of a complicated and engaging man.
“Roadrunner” doesn’t cover all of Bourdain’s life, or even much of his life as a chef at all. Instead, it starts in 1999 at the birth of Bourdain the public figure with the publication of his bestselling tell-all book “Kitchen Confidential.” Fame from the book propelled Bourdain out of the kitchen and into his true dream job, traveling the world, eating and drinking, meeting new people, hungrily devouring experiences and never getting full. “One minute I was standing next to a deep fryer,” Bourdain says. “The next minute I was watching the sun set on the Sahara.”
Much of “Roadrunner” is a whirlwind of places and people, peppered with Bourdain quotes, clips of the old movies he loved, and interviews with the inner circle of filmmakers who accompanied him on his adventures. We see his famous friends, like chef Eric Ripert and rocker Josh Homme.
It’s a lot of fun, but we already begin to see the fracture between Bourdain the public figure and Bourdain the man, and how the former left little room for being the latter. As he traveled and saw the suffering and hardship in places like Haiti, Lebanon and Borneo, Bourdain's brash public presence began to recede. He talked less and listened more, and cared less about food and more about people.
As he evolved as a public figure, the private man struggled to find happiness. He was quick to embrace people and just as quick to abandon them. There’s an interview filmed for one of his shows where Bourdain is talking to rocker Iggy Pop and asks him what thrills him. Pop’s answer, for a man who lived a life even wilder than Bourdain’s, is surprising: “Being loved, and appreciating the people who are giving that to me.” Bourdain nods his head, but clearly has no idea what Pop is talking about.
The interviews turn angry and tearful as Bourdain's inner circle recounts the last years of his life, before he died by suicide in 2018. Some of this section of the film feels like unseemly score-settling, especially when Bourdain’s film crew complains about the influence that his then-girlfriend Asia Argento had on the show (Argento is not interviewed to defend herself). Neville also makes the questionable decision, reported in the New Yorker, to use AI to recreate Bourdain’s voice reading an email he sent to a friend.
It’s utterly unnecessary, because there is so much Bourdain out there already. He was filmed relentlessly, quoted constantly, yet was almost always playing a version of himself. "Roadrunner" gives us a messier, fuller picture of the man and the passions and demons that drove him around and around the world.
The film gives the viewer a taste for travel, for food and for new experiences. It is also a sobering reminder that going to a new place does not make you a new person.