Friday, July 16, 2021

Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story is a solid documentary that gets tripped up by its own controversial elements


At the top of Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story, the film's interview subjects begin grappling with a question that's at the forefront of everyone's viewer's mind; how do you make this movie? The sudden loss of Anthony Bourdain, who committed suicide in June 2018, makes it difficult to imagine how you can make a project covering his life that doesn't feel sensationalized. But as director Morgan Neville mentions off-camera, Roadrunner will try to surmount this challenge by simply trying to probe who Bourdain was and what informed his passion for exploring various world cultures.

With that, we're off on a chronological look at Bourdain's career, starting when his book, Kitchen Confidential, rocketed him to a whole new level of notoriety. Right away, the guy's media persona was cemented. Bourdain didn't sugarcoat anything, he had candor to spare. But he also had a clear passion for the world of cooking and that level of passion led to him getting an offer to host his own travel show. As he explored the culinary delights of foreign countries, both Bourdain's show and personality began to evolve. Soon, Bourdain's program wasn't even about the food, it was about watching a man engage with a larger world beyond his front door.

The depiction of the evolution of Bourdain's television exploits is one of the most fascinating parts of Roadrunner. Initially, Bourdain's show, which hinged on stunts like this chef eating a cobra heart. Here, Bourdain's show evokes early 2000s entities like Fear Factor, which were all about gross-out stunts and little else. But Roadrunner shows how experiences in countries like Beirut molded Bourdain into a whole new person who began to use his significant media presence for greater purposes. One of the producers Bourdain worked with notes that his show got better once he went from being a travel guide to being simply an everyday guy open in his inexperience. Roadrunner charts that evolution quite intriguingly. 

There's a bittersweet quality to the depiction of these gradual changes, a reminder that we never truly know where we're going to end up. Part of that evolution also includes Bourdain eventually becoming a father, another unexpected twist tying into how Roadrunner makes time to explore who this man was when the cameras were turned off. A small conversation where Bourdain notes that being "a TV dad," doing simple things like grilling or playing with his daughter, are his happiest moments, that really hits home emotionally. It's a seemingly throwaway comment, but it's also one that lends insight into the price of fame. 

Helping to further unpeel the layers are interviews with the people who were closest to Bourdain. The best of these scenes belong to conversations with David Choe, whose frankness helps get to the heart of another constant part of Bourdain's life, his addiction. Through listening to Choe, one garners a greater understanding for possibly why Bourdain threw himself so fully into so many different passions, whether that be a television host or even just practicing jiu jitsu. It's also interesting how the interview subjects all seem to have a different relationship with Bourdain. Some are work colleagues, others are just friends, still others bonded with him over shared experiences with addiction. There's a quiet versatility here that helps to reflect the complexities of Bourdain as a human.

Overall, Roadrunner: The Anthony Bourdain Story is a solidly constructed documentary (though certainly not as good as Neville's Won't You Be My Neighbor), but a review written now cannot ignore the elephant in the room. Director Morgan Neville used an artificial intelligence machine to provide voicework as Bourdain for sequences in Roadrunner. It's a deeply uncomfortable scenario all around, especially since key figures in his life apparently did not consent to this. Even just limiting the perspective to how it's utilized in the film, going this route was a poor move. The A.I. Bourdain voiceover is obvious even if you're unaware of the controversy and it distracts from what should be an intimate scene of Choe reflecting on an important email from Bourdain. Meanwhile, Neville's refusal to interview Bourdain's girlfriend Asia Argento exacerbates problematic sequences from Roadrunner that, in the most charitable reading, uncomfortably suggest relationship problems with Argento could have influenced Bourdain's demise. 

Sometimes it's easy to separate the art from the artist, but here, it's much more difficult to do that. Roadrunner is still a moving ode to a man who lived a life of empathy and complexities. If only the movie's own nuances didn't emerge from qualities like that A.I. voiceover.

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