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Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ Brilliantly Studies a Tragically Flawed Yet Brilliant Man

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, ROADRUNNER, a Focus Features release. Courtesy of CNN / Focus Features

“As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly; you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life–and travel–leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks–on your body or on your heart–are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” – Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain was a complicated man. He was many things, but for almost anyone who read or watched him, he was someone they felt like they knew. So, his decision to end his life struck a nerve in a way that doesn’t always happen, even with celebrity suicides. After all, a man who was paid to travel the world and eat the best food it had to offer was living the dream. Who wouldn’t want that? Of course, that’s not the whole story. Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, is a documentary that seeks to unpack the man, both his positives and his negatives. The result is a deeply emotional experience, but one that’s phenomenally well done. Along with being a highlight of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, it’s also just one of the best movies of the year so far.

Open emotional wounds/anguish is a trigger for me, so fair warning here if that’s the case for you. For example, the missing posters that plastered New York City after 9/11, or the stories of COVID victims dying alone, they destroy me. So, seeing the memorial that popped up at Bourdain’s former restaurant after his death brought me to deep tears. It’s one of several moments that will do so, in all likelihood, for you too. Be warned.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain brilliantly ponders a brilliant yet troubled man. Largely using some incredible footage of him, including home footage, as well as talking head interviews with those closest to him, we see all sides of him. It impeccably shows you the mark he made on everyone, which results in some heart-wrenching moments, especially towards the conclusion. For a man who wanted everyone to live life to the fullest, his own being snuffed out is positively heartbreaking.

Focus Features

The documentary is a behind the scenes look at the career and life of Anthony Bourdain. Starting off right as he’s finishing the book Kitchen Confidential that will make him a celebrity, we see how this chef has the potential to become an icon. It wasn’t his cooking that connected him to people, it was his voice. That voice led him to pen numerous books, followed by a career on television. There, it became more about travel than food, though once he truly found his niche, it was about appreciating other cultures. In short order, he became a revered figure in several circles, though his troubled nature always lurked beneath the surface.

The third act takes us towards his end, before leaving us with the holes in the hearts of those who loved him. His then-rocky relationship with Asia Argento is hinted at as a potential contributing factor to the manic depression that claimed him, but no one can truly know. What’s known is that several individuals felt that they could have reached out to him in a time of need, even if they couldn’t have known that it was the case. By the doc’s conclusion, you understand just what a towering figure he was, to so many people.

Focus Features

Watching Anthony Bourdain navigate fame is a compelling experience, even knowing what’s to come. His early days, when he seemed almost stunned that people cared, certainly inform the eventual conflicted nature of his latter days. However, you never forget how much he loved food, travel, and most of all, people. For all his potentially harsh tendencies, as well as troubled nature, he was a romantic. Watching this flick, you see it in every single frame.

Director Morgan Neville is an incredible chronicler of individuals we want back in our lives. Much like with Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Neville presents a layered portrait of a man. Fred Rogers and Anthony Bourdain may not have many similarities, but Neville sees them as equally worthy of his attention. Mainly talking to those who knew him best, the filmmaker really lets you in, sometimes to an almost uncomfortable degree. This is, in the very definition of the word, an intimate experience.

Of course, no discussion of this documentary, or Bourdain, can avoid bringing up suicide. The movie does make it clear that it’s an unnecessarily permanent solution to a temporary problem, but there’s a small moment that hammers things home in a devastatingly effective manner. One of his friends is recalling his young child asking “how did Tony die?” and initially avoiding the answer. Then, he gives in and explains what happened, but ends by saying that unlike Bourdain, he’d always have someone here to talk to. If you’re not a puddle of tears by then, you’re made of stone.

Focus Features

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain isn’t easy to watch, even though it’s often wildly entertaining. Neville allows you to have conflicted feelings about Bourdain. We can be angry at his selfish exit from this world, while missing his life force terribly. We can enjoy what he gave us, while wishing there was more. That ultimately is what makes this documentary so successful. We get a bit more time with a compelling figure, while trying to understand him a little bit better. Simply put, this is one of the best movies playing at Tribeca this year.

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” – Anthony Bourdain

 “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” – Anthony Bourdain

SCORE: ★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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