Director Morgan Neville has helmed some of the best documentaries in recent memory. Watching his 2018 film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”—about children’s television personality Fred Rogers—was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. With his new film, Neville profiles the life and career of another TV icon: celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. As with “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, with “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” Neville heavily utilizes film clips and interviews with friends, family, and colleagues to recap his subject’s career accomplishments and personal life, but mostly to try to analyze why he was the way he was and why he did what he did. A big difference with “Roadrunner,” however, is that while it is engrossing on a surface level, Neville utilizes some manipulative tactics in its final act to craft a certain narrative surrounding Bourdain leading up to his 2018 suicide at the age of 61 that feel quite gross and problematic.
Bourdain was an executive chef at the Manhattan restaurant Les Halles when he rocketed to fame after the success of his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential. After the success of another book, A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain was approached by producer Lydia Tenaglia and her husband Chris Collins to host a show based on his book, one that would involve him traveling to different countries and trying exotic cuisines. “A Cook’s Tour” launched Bourdain’s new career as a television host, and was followed by such popular shows as “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” Bourdain’s sarcastic persona made for good TV, but his shows were more than just traveling around and eating weird stuff. They were political. Bourdain championed cooks and cuisines and countries that Western culture frequently casts in a racist light, and that won him over with many fans just as much, if not more, than his personality.
If you already know all that, however, don’t expect to learn much more regarding Bourdain’s accomplishments from “Roadrunner,” which provides a rather textbook rundown of his career from Kitchen Confidential onward. Where the documentary places the most emphasis is on breaking down Bourdain’s personal life and mental state. Bourdain was deeply troubled, and the documentary works best when friends and colleagues, including Tenaglia, Collins, ex-wife Ottavia Busia, restauranteur David Chang, and chef Éric Ripert, are given the opportunity to discuss both the tribulations and joys of their relationship with them. The interviewees reflect and grieve, and maybe this film was as much a release for them as it will be for fans who are still mourning Bourdain’s loss.
But it’s the turn the narrative takes toward the end of the documentary that doesn’t feel right. There is some discussion of Bourdain’s relationship with his last girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, who accusations of assault against Harvey Weinstein prompted Bourdain to become a vocal supporter of the Me Too movement, especially within the restaurant industry. But Neville’s film also alleges that their complicated relationship may not have been the best thing for Bourdain, and that tabloid photos of Argento holding hands with another man published days before Bourdain committed suicide may have contributed to whatever his state of mind was at the time. Even before Bourdain’s death, the focus of the talking heads is on how Argento’s presence negatively affected Bourdain both on and off camera. The way the film vilifies Argento in this way is unsettling, not only because Argento wasn’t interviewed for the film, but because Neville did not even approach her for an interview (a decision the filmmaker has defended by saying that their relationship was just too complicated to try to unravel). Maybe Neville wasn’t trying to purposely twist the narrative in this direction, but his clearly purposeful decision to not give Argento an opportunity to speak for herself isn’t right. The fact that in the final scenes the film is trying so hard to find an answer for why Bourdain killed himself feels similarly off. There is often no concrete answer for why someone chooses to end their life, and the fact that the film presumes that maybe there is, that maybe it can craft a fitting ending to Bourdain’s life story that simply is not there, is frustrating.
There have been other ethical conversations surrounding “Roadrunner” that have gained a lot more attention, even if they seem less consequential compared to the Argento debacle. Neville had an A.I. program craft Bourdain’s voice so he could use it to read aloud some of Bourdain’s written words for which no recordings existed. He also commissioned a mural with the intention of having one of his subjects deface it for the camera, while also suggesting to the same subject that he cut his hair for the first time since Bourdain’s death for the camera. Maybe those aren’t the biggest deals in the world, but when Neville acknowledges something like the artificial voice in an interview with the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner with the statement, “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later,” that very sentence suggests that he knew that he was venturing into questionable territory.
Otherwise, “Roadrunner” is an incredibly well-crafted film. Neville interviews a variety of subjects and gets great soundbites out of them, and the liberal use of behind-the-scenes footage of Bourdain gives the viewer a strong sense of his personality (even if some of that footage, too, is framed in a way to portray Bourdain as lonely or sad when we don’t necessarily know that that was what was going on at the time). But as strong a tribute to Bourdain as it sometimes is, as entertaining as it is, and as much as it provides an outlet for grief, those icky parts undermine the whole thing.
Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated R.