Anthony Bourdain left no suicide note when he took his life in 2018, a fact that adds to the numbing bafflement produced by his death. Bourdain was many thing: among others, a chef, a traveler, an activist, a celebrity. But he was also first and foremost a writer. While he won his greatest fame as a host of TV travel shows, it was as a writer, for The New Yorker and then in his candid cook memoir Kitchen Confidential, that he first staked out his claim on the public’s attention
Before the writing career, Bourdain would also pour out his heart to his friends in e-mails, and even after his fame, he continued to hone his craft, writing the scripts for his shows. For him, writing was a tool of self-discovery and a way of understanding the world around him.
The torrent of words that flowed from Bourdain during his life makes the silence of his last moments all the more striking and difficult to process. For his many fans, Bourdain was a figure not just to admire but also to emulate. He bundled together a fascinating set of contradictions. He had an enormous appetite for life, but that hunger for new experience was enriched and elevated by a genuine social conscience and a seemingly limitless curiosity. He ate and traveled not in the spirit of a hedonist but as a humanist, someone for whom nothing human, not even the eating of a live snake’s heart, was alien. He was curious about the world and had the gift for making readers and viewers share his questing spirit. Which all raises the question, as his friend John Lurie asks in Morgan Neville’s new documentary about Bourdain, “How does a storyteller check out without leaving a note?”
That’s the question that haunts Neville’s new film, Roadrunner, which is less a full-press biography of Bourdain (the first 43 years of his life get short shrift) and more a meditation on his death and the pain still experienced by his family and friends and many of his fans. In this way, it is two films at once: Full of letters and Bourdain’s own writing, it serves in some ways as the missing last note. With its plethora of reminiscences from loved ones, it also is a wake—a place where his friends can celebrate his life and work toward processing a still-unhealed grief.
Bourdain’s loved ones are candid about the personal demons that drove him: the perfectionism and punishing work ethic that fueled his success but shattered his two marriages. Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, the second wife, is frank about how her former husband’s brutal schedule of travelling 250 days a year prevented him from spending time with her and their daughter. Bourdain’s friend David Chang, a restaurateur, also recounts how Bourdain could be hurtful at times, projecting his own frustrations on others. At one moment in their relationship, Bourdain told Chang he could not be a good father. Prodded by Neville, Chang concludes that the remark came from Bourdain’s own past: Bourdain was aware of his own failings as a parent.
Throughout these interviews, Neville’s gentle prodding and poking takes on a therapeutic quality. “I was the grief counsellor, who showed up to talk to everybody,” as he explained to The New Yorker. At points this leads the film to moments of insensitive candor not unlike Bourdain’s own prose. “He committed suicide, the fucking asshole,” John Lurie blurts out at one point. In another set of affecting and honest scenes, Bourdain’s film crew talk about how mercurial he was in the last months of his life, with both the intense pleasure he took from life and his bouts of despair hitting new peaks and valleys.
Roadrunner is an emotionally charged film, but far from a definitive one. As befits a wake, it prompts a renewed appreciation for the life mourned and it often leaves certain parts of a life unexamined. The airing of grief is a step toward a final coming to terms. Yet, even as the film contributes to the processing of grief, two missteps mar the documentary. Nothing can be more fun in a wake than when the dead soul being mourned and celebrated suddenly jumps back to life and joins in the dancing: That’s the plot of “Finnegan’s Wake,” the Irish ballad that provide the name (in slightly altered form) and theme of James Joyce’s magnificent experimental novel.
But the impulse to revive the dead in Roadrunner becomes sometimes too literal and gimmicky: Neville replicated Bourdain’s voice using a computer program and uses this AI-generated voice to read from his letters. This a minor foible, but it still serves to undermine our trust in a film that gets its best power from moments of candor about Bourdain’s vulnerabilities and flaws. If the power of the film is to bring us nearer to the Bourdain as seen by his intimates, the use of a computer voice conjures up a different experience: an animatronic Bourdain at Disneyland, an engineered revenant designed to feign life in order to replicate a now-lost experience.
But the manufactured voice and distrust its engenders point to a larger problem in the documentary: its selective use of the evidence. All documentaries do that, of course, but a film that trades on the frisson of authenticity the way Roadrunner does merits a closer level of scrutiny, especially because while it is busy reanimating Bourdiain’s voice it also leaves out that of Asia Argento, the woman with whom Bourdain was romantically involved.
Neville explained his decision not to interview Argento to The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner by noting that the lead-up to the suicide was “like narrative quicksand. People think they want to know more, but you tell them one thing more, and they want to know ten more. And none of those things actually bring you closer to understanding Tony. I realized that it would be a bunch of she said, they said: ‘This happened,’ ‘No, that happened.’ That’s not the film I wanted to make. Somebody else can make a film about his last relationship, the last year of his life.”
While one can understand the instinct to avoid the tabloid rumors about Bourdain’s last relationship, the omission of Argento in the film is hard to forgive, particularly since so many of those who are interviewed in it disparage her in various ways. “She’s going to take over your life,” one friend is overheard warning Bourdain in a video. Another friend, speaking to Neville, explains the Bourdain and Argento relationship in these terms: “What I saw was him turn what was a lifelong addictive personality to another person and that was extremely dangerous.”
Fortunately, the film doesn’t quite blame the suicide on Argento. That would be an obscene and unkind accusation. But it does gesture to the turmoil in the relationship and how it might have exacerbated Bourdain’s preexisting tendencies. Without letting Argento respond to such an implication, or to even give her side of the story, the film offers only a partial and flawed account. It’s also a dereliction of elementary ethical obligations for a work of journalism.
Throughout Roadrunner, there is much to admire. It presents a complex portrait of a tortured man full of admirable contradiction. The film also offers a powerful survey of grief that combines with its celebration of Bourdain’s life. Yet, in failing to interview Argento, it underscores how unresolved his death remains. The mystery of Anthony Bourdain and of his death only deepens.