The first footage in writer/director Morgan Neville’s documentary ─ which serves as a lavish eulogy for Anthony Bourdain ─ is Anthony Bourdain explicitly saying that he doesn’t want a lavish eulogy. That feels bad, right?
That scene could be seen as an apology that Bourdain will never hear, for a transgression he thankfully won’t ever feel. It’s either that or it’s a cheeky shoulder shrug, a “whatta-ya-gonna-do?” wink and nod from a director who knows he’s participating in some kind of maniacal, grotesque necromancy. Good news: We don’t have to wonder which it is.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Neville admitted to using AI to replicate the voice of a cultural icon ─ beloved for his honesty and sincerity ─ to make him say things he never said out loud. That feels bad too, right? It gets worse! Neville’s response when ever-so-lightly pressed on the issue was “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.” No need, Morgs!
Even if it weren’t for that clear and total violation of not just artistic integrity but basic human decency, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain would be wildly upsetting. Neville doesn’t lay Bourdain’s suicide at the feet of his girlfriend, Asia Argento, despite never even asking to interview her: it all but throws his body at her. It also features speculation that Bourdain’s outspoken passion for the #MeToo movement was displaced heroin addiction.
Neville allows Bourdain’s long-time TV producers to weep and declare that they never exploited their friend. They go totally unchallenged, despite Bourdain telling fellow chefs and artists how he had lost himself in the process of doing the show. The documentary even includes a scene where it is revealed that Bourdain’s ideal version of the program that truly made (and kept) him famous wouldn’t even focus on him at all. That is a pretty damning thing to include in a film focused entirely on him.
That’s all really very bad, right?
Is it neat to see this quasi-retrospective of Bourdain’s rise from bad-boy chef to self-deputized American ambassador? Sure. There’s also, like, hundreds of hours of him doing that outside of this ill-conceived endeavor. The point of Roadrunner seems to be to understand a man who never understood himself, despite that man’s very clear request that nobody try and do just that.
The film makes frequent references to Bourdain’s fame without contextualizing his impact. That is to say, it’s wonderful and necessary to hear from those who were closest to him. It would also be nice to see his societal footprint in ways beyond people just noting that he was a best-selling author with a popular TV show. The footage at the very end of strangers creating a makeshift memorial at his former restaurant speaks to a profound impact that is never measured or depicted just inferred.
The positive reactions to Roadrunner appear to mostly be goodwill and an embrace of Bourdain himself. Because, to be clear, the film is truly successful at absolutely nothing. It doesn’t reveal meaningful insights that couldn’t be gleaned from reading, seeing, or hearing Bourdain in the previous words he chose to share. It doesn’t serve as a coda on the end of a chaotic life in any way that isn’t gross.
As so many cultural figures are anointed in death, Bourdain is getting dangerously close to pop cultural sainthood. The sole redeeming moment in Roadrunner comes when David Choe realizes that the best way to honor his friend is to actively work against that progression. He gets it. Neville doesn’t.
Grade = F
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Kristy Puchko at Pajiba says, “Some might crave something cleaner, brighter, more cathartic. But such an offering would be a disservice to an artist who pushed the envelope, pulled at our heartstrings, and demanded we meet him wherever he roamed.”
Carla Renata from The Curvy Film Critic says the film “is a reminder to pay attention to those you truly love, as they may be struggling with internal demons you will never know or recognize. However, sometimes all the love in the world can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.”
Courtney Small at Cinema Axis says “The documentary also serves as a solid introduction into Bourdain’s life for newcomers. Since Bourdain is such a complicated individual, Roadrunner lacks the cohesiveness it is searching for. However, it is the film’s imperfections that allow viewers to connect with its subject on a more personal level.”