Film Review: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

The first documentary I’ve seen in theaters in quite a few years.

Admittedly, prior to watching the documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, I didn’t know much about Bourdain. I never read his fame-making book, Kitchen Confidential (although I sort of want to now), and I didn’t keep up with his various shows, including the most recent one on CNN, Parts Unknown, although I’ve seen a few episodes, primarily the one with former President Barack Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam.

And of course, I know Bourdain killed himself in 2018.

I also am familiar with the general ethos that it seemed Bourdain championed and mentions in the documentary: That the dinner table is the great flattening object for the world. That at the dinner table through the universal enjoyment of food, you can learn about people and other cultures, thus negating stereotypes, fears and the like. That makes for a more rich, fulfilling world. More on that in a second.

What I kept thinking about while watching this whirlwind of a documentary is that Bourdain struck me as akin to Hunter S. Thompson and his gonzo style of reporting, where he is both experiencing (and influencing) events on the ground across the world while also telling the story. (I know I’m not the first one to make that comparison. I try to write my reviews before reading anything else, so my thoughts aren’t influenced, and then I read what others say thereafter. I saw on his Wikipedia the direct comparison to Thompson.) In fact, in one particular scene in Haiti, Bourdain did try to do the ostensibly “right thing” by helping give out leftover food to the Haitians, and instead, it turned into an ugly mob scene.

That experience, along with experiencing bombings and war in Libya, instilled cynicism of a kind into Bourdain and made him question that aforementioned ethos. He wondered, who is really being helped by what I’m doing? I’m winning awards and making money, but what of the people?

In addition, that gonzo style isn’t just that dichotomous presentation of experiencing while also being a storyteller, but the chaotic, manic energy Bourdain exudes. Turns out, he was a heroin addict when he was younger. He was able to somehow kick the addiction cold turkey and never dabbled again. However, as his longtime friends tell it, they believe he transmuted his addiction to other things, like traveling the world — where you want to be home with your family, but also when you’re home with your family, you feel like you’re fundamentally missing something out there —, jiu-jitsu, and his various relationships.

I thought that was an interesting aspect. Bourdain fiercely dedicated himself to jiu-jitsu because his second wife was into it. He did so at the age of 58. Later, in therapy (and with all due respect, I thought the tidbits we heard from the therapist was bad; she wasn’t great), Bourdain thinks he’s too old to save himself, basically. To learn how to manage his depression. But you learned taekwondo at 58! I bet if he had transmuted his addictive, manic personality to going “all in” on “solving” his depression, he would have surprised himself with the results.

The documentary, particularly the latter half, is dark and heavy, of course. An addict is trying to supplement some sort of missing piece within them and they fill that hole with whatever the addiction is, be it heroin, traveling the world or another person. But, obviously, it’s not satisfying because it’s not possible to fill that hole with such things.

I do think the film is quite unfair to Asia Argento, who started dating Bourdain in 2017. Argento was nearly 20 years younger than Bourdain. But you know, whatever, consenting adults can do whatever they want. However, where I felt the documentary and the people interviewed therein go too far is seeming to put a lot of blame on Argento’s shoulders for the last year and a half of Bourdain’s life nosediving, professionally (he makes changes that bothered those people) and personally, culminating in his suicide.

The other major issue I had with the discussion around his suicide is that a few of his lifelong friends appear to “blame,” for lack of a better word, Bourdain for the suicide, calling it cruel and not understanding how Bourdain could leave behind his daughter.

Suicide isn’t about you. That’s the cold, hard-to-understand truth of it. You could have, and I believe in this case, they did, love the person with all of your heart and do everything you can for them. And still, a suicide might happen. It’s not your fault. But also, it isn’t about you. This isn’t to glorify suicide; the point is, consider this reframing instead: What about Bourdain’s pain that drove him to that point, impulsive or not? He wasn’t selfish or cruel in killing himself; he was in unimaginable pain where suicide seemed like the only answer in that moment of despair.

As is always the case, suicide, much like that dinner table, is the great flattening. It doesn’t care about your race, religion, wealth, fame, class status, familial relationships, etc. None of it matters. You can have the whole world at your footsteps, as Bourdain nearly literally did with his nearly incalculable level of travel attests to and still have nothing, and still experience that numbing nothingness within your essence.

Bourdain’s story, inevitability, is part tragic because of that. But as one of his lifelong friends advocated, there is more to the Bourdain story than tragedy. There is more to his legacy than tragedy and the way it ended. He opened the doors to something beautiful and even if cynicism sometimes pushed again it, his “dinner table being the great flattening” ethos is a beautiful one.

And this could be my own bias, but one of the other takeaways I have from the documentary and the life of Bourdain is that he lived his life the way he wanted to life it. Fully, complicated, messy, imperfect and all the rest, but it was his life. Anarchic and wild. But free. Not many people get to say that.

So, that’s also beautiful.

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