Updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on July 28, 2021
Regardless of whether you loved Anthony Bourdain—and the striking thing is that so many people who had even a spotty acquaintance with him or his work felt like they did—the end of Roadrunner is devastating to watch. Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the chef and TV star runs through two decades of Bourdain’s life onscreen before concluding with present-day scenes of his friends still struggling to parse his death by suicide in 2018, at the age of 61. “I don’t think he was cruel, and there’s such a cruelty to that [act],” the musician Alison Mosshart says. “What the hell is everyone supposed to do?” The artist David Choe weeps on camera, and then spray-paints over a mural of Bourdain, as if to challenge the hagiographic portraits of the Parts Unknown host that proliferated after his death. “Going out in a blaze of glory was so fucking lame,” he says.
Since Roadrunner’s release, critics and viewers have debated some of the queasier ethical decisions Neville made: employing an artificial intelligence to create deepfake recordings of Bourdain’s voice, commissioning that saintly mural of his face for Choe to deface, framing the actor Asia Argento as the Yoko-esque agent of Bourdain’s downfall without so much as calling her for comment. These are all odd, extravagant choices, and yet what confounded me most was what the movie left out. “I want to make a film about why he was who he was,” Neville tells the artist John Lurie at the beginning of the movie. For the next two hours, Roadrunner seems to dodge all the parts of its subject’s life that might offer concrete answers to Neville’s question. It vividly and emotively captures Bourdain’s late-period melancholy and bitterness without fully connecting the dots to his history of addiction, his hypermasculine public persona, and his lifelong quest for transient thrills.
Instead, the movie begins with Bourdain in his early 40s, right around the time he published his scorching exposé of the restaurant industry, Kitchen Confidential. In 2000, celebrity chefs were mostly clean-cut boys next door (Alton Brown, Bobby Flay, a baby-faced Jamie Oliver) or QVC-photogenic opportunists (Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck). Bourdain, with his swaggering brand of buccaneer zealotry, the bad boy of brasserie fare and besmircher of brunch, didn’t fit into either category. His kindred spirits weren’t Alice Waters and Julia Child so much as Iggy Pop, Hunter S. Thompson, and Bruce Lee.
“I had had, for some time, a romantic if inaccurate view of myself as some kind of hyperviolent, junkie Byron,” Bourdain writes in Kitchen Confidential, a book that I recently reread to find the context I was missing. In photographs from the time, he smolders from under shoulder-length curls like a knife-wielding Lou Reed. Food, sex, drugs: All were part and parcel of the hedonistic brotherhood of chefs that drew him in. “The life of a cook was a life of adventure, looting, pillaging, and rock-and-rolling through life with a carefree disregard for all conventional morality,” Bourdain writes. “It looked pretty damn good to me.” And accompanying it all was heroin, which seems a more meaningful part of Bourdain’s story than Neville makes out.
Roadrunner begins with Kitchen Confidential and shows how quickly it turned Bourdain from an anonymous steak-slinger into a celebrity smiling confusedly at Oprah, as if—record scratch, freeze frame—he had no idea how he got there. The documentary appears intent on countering the image Bourdain curated for himself on TV, in books, and, later, via social media. Fans thought of him as a fearless traveler, zooming through Hanoi traffic on a scooter and watching jet fuel burn in Beirut, when he accidentally found himself filming in a war zone. But his longtime producers note that before Kitchen Confidential, he had barely traveled. In archival footage from 2000, Bourdain hovers uneasily at an airport on the way to shoot his pilot season of A Cook’s Tour, sweetly formal in a blazer. His public image was inextricably tied up with the kitchen; in reality, he was a jobbing cook at best, and food was less pivotal to his TV pursuits than adventure and anthropology. Fans appreciated him most as a curious, deeply humane guide to dark chapters of human history, but as members of his crew point out, he could be moody, truculent, and pigheaded.
I appreciated this narrative complication, and the gentle deflation of Bourdain’s exalted reputation. Are we not all cranky sometimes in unfamiliar places? (A scene in which Bourdain shoots metaphorical daggers at a Parisian mime artist in the Tuileries is one of my favorite filmed moments of the year.) And yet the way Neville frames Bourdain’s path toward disaffection and depression—a TV career that acclimatizes him to a nomadic life, and a girlfriend who disrupts the equilibrium of his crew and humiliates him with her indiscretions—feels strikingly incomplete.
In Bourdain’s own telling, he was dark from the beginning. “Spite, always a great motivating force in my life, caused me to become suddenly adventurous where food was concerned,” he writes in Kitchen Confidential of an early-childhood trip to France. His first experience of an oyster, shucked and gulped down beside the ocean while his parents and brother recoiled, was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of forbidden fruit. “Everything that followed in my life—the food, the long and often stupid and self-destructive chase for the next thing, whether it was drugs or sex or some other new sensation—would all stem from this moment.”
In Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes that he stopped using heroin by taking up methadone (and supplementing it with cocaine and alcohol, which he drank liberally throughout his life). He quit one drug—the worst one, by his understanding—but he never, as far as I can tell, went through a process of recovery to tackle his emotional pain alongside his physical withdrawal. Even though he continued drinking, he seems to have met all the criteria for a “dry drunk,” a person who abstains from substances but continues to behave like an addict. (Moodiness, egotism, depression, compulsive behaviors, restlessness, and distraction are all common symptoms.) He saw a therapist for the first time as an adult in 2016, when he was 59, and as usual, the camera followed along. “Do you really want to change anything? Do you want to change the way you feel?” the therapist asks Bourdain, in a scene that features in Roadrunner. “I suspect it’s too late,” he replies. The following year, he told The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe that he often thought about dying, and that if he ever got a bad chest X-ray, he’d be back on heroin in a heartbeat.
The movie, troublingly, implicates Argento as a possible factor in his death without acknowledging that Bourdain had long joked and mordantly fantasized about killing himself. Neville notes, fleetingly, that because of Argento, who accused Harvey Weinstein of raping her during the 1990s, Bourdain became an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement and for survivors of assault. But the director doesn’t explore the stickiness of Bourdain’s entire persona being formed in the toxic masculinity of the professional kitchen, where, in his words, “conversation tends to center around who’s got the bigger balls and who takes it in the ass,” and a common refrain among chefs is “Don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife.” Of the men Bourdain cites as his heroes in Kitchen Confidential—William S. Burroughs, Jim Morrison, Keith Richards—the common thread uniting them all is a fealty to masculine excess. Machismo—which might manifest as not calling in sick for a shift; not stopping to treat a vicious burn; not admitting vulnerability, ever—seems harder in some cases to quit than drugs, and yet Bourdain’s willingness to question it toward the end of his life makes you wonder what could have been.
In a 2014 Parts Unknown episode, Bourdain returns to Massachusetts, where many of his formative experiences took place: first kitchen job, first love affair, first bag of heroin. Food is less central to the episode than drugs, which he explains have consumed parts of the state. In one scene, he visits a recovery center and contributes his own story. “I’ll tell you something really shameful about myself,” he says. “The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin. You know, something was missing in me, whether it was a self-image situation, whether it was a character flaw … There was some dark genie inside me that I very much hesitate to call a disease, that led me to dope.” The scene feels profound, and deeply tragic—characteristically, Bourdain’s insight could be more acute than anyone else’s.
This piece originally misstated that scenes from a 2014 Parts Unknown episode did not appear in Roadrunner.