Anthony Bourdain in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” Focus Features

Bad boy chef-turned-raconteur Anthony Bourdain sits at a two-top with one of his heroes, Iggy Pop, the proto-punk rocker who once overdosed onstage in Los Angeles and rolled in broken glass until his face bled during a New York show. Pop’s message all those years ago was not lost on a young Bourdain: Life is tedious and often painful, and you have to do whatever you can to escape it. Drugs. Violence. Self-destruction.

But as the two sit across from each other at a window table in the documentary, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” they’re old men, the years easily traced in the lines on their faces. Bourdain asks Pop a simple question: What thrills you now? Implicit in the question is Bourdain’s assumption that the thrill is indeed gone, along with their youth, vigor and ability to outrage. Pop, his face leathery, his eyes so clear and blue, has a surprising answer for his friend.

“Being loved,” he says, “and actually appreciating the people that are giving that to me.”

Bourdain nods, almost robotically, as if he knows he needs to acknowledge the legend’s words. But his face – his mouth tight, his eyes flat – shows no sign of recognition. Nothing. It’s as if Pop has uttered something in a dialect Bourdain doesn’t understand, which, in a way, he did.

The scene is one among many revealing moments embedded in director Morgan Neville’s nervy, impressionistic film, which over the course of two hours quietly peels back the layers of an onion that sweetened almost everything it touched and left many of us with tears in our eyes. Bourdain, who died by suicide in 2018, occasionally serves as narrator of his own posthumous documentary. As he explains at the start of the film, with a previously recorded passage that lands much differently following his death: “You’re probably going to find out about it anyway, so here’s a little preemptive truth-telling. There’s no happy ending.”

Three years after Bourdain’s premature departure from our world, we’re left with the unenviable task of trying to make sense of it all. We’ve had to come to grips with at least one truth that wasn’t obvious when Bourdain was still alive: He may have been a brilliant tour guide to the world, but he wasn’t a reliable narrator about his own life. To peer into this under-examined life, Neville (an Oscar winner for his magnificent tribute to background singers, “20 Feet from Stardom”) pulls together those who knew Bourdain best, a motley collection of family members, artists, writers, musicians, chefs and filmmakers, many of them people attuned to the cycle of creation and decay.

Anthony Bourdain, right, with restaurateur David Chang, in “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” Focus Features

Using these voices, along with some choice music (including Brian Jonestown Massacre’s “Anemone,” played on restaurateur and multimedia star David Chang’s phone, a chilling moment) and lots of superb archival footage and outtakes, Neville stitches together the highs and lows of Bourdain’s life, but with the benefit of hindsight and ample soul-searching. Some of the insights feel like truth, such as “Parts Unknown” director Tom Vitale’s comment, delivered in a hesitant and measured tone, as if he were reluctant to shatter an illusion:

“His attention and focus was so strong, but there was always a timeline,” Vitale says of Bourdain. “I don’t think there was anything that would have lasted forever in his world. No person, place, thing, interest.”

The people who populate this doc are not afraid to speak their minds, but don’t mistake that unblinking honesty for journalistic balance. Neville has a point of view, and his chosen cast of characters reflects it: They all loved, or at least respected, Bourdain. Some cry on camera. Others clearly feel as if they didn’t do enough to protect him. The filmmakers also throw under the bus Asia Argento, the activist actor whom Bourdain dated before he died, without offering her perspective on the whole mess. Earlier this year, Neville told Variety that he elected to omit Argento because she says the “same thing in every interview.”

But the excuse rings hollow, as if Neville couldn’t have pushed Argento to go beyond her canned responses. Her absence here smacks of avoidance, which is heavy burden to bear for a film about a man who had trouble confronting his own darkness.


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