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Anthony Bourdain Deserved a Realer Documentary Than Roadrunner

From staging its emotional finale to deploying AI-generated simulations of Anthony Bourdain’s voice, Roadrunner’s director has undercut the reliability of the entire project.

Roadrunner traps Anthony Bourdain’s entire life story inside a redundant, dumbed-down summary in a clumsy attempt at catharsis for his fans. (Focus Features)

I should say right from the start of this review that I can’t be considered an Anthony Bourdain fan. I haven’t read his books and only saw a few episodes of his show.

I did, however, read that first New Yorker essay that put him on the map, followed by the book that made him famous, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. He seemed like an interesting guy, especially when passages such as this one from his book A Cook’s Tour began to make the rounds on social media:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.

This plainspoken rage against a ruling class toadie like Kissinger, along with his advocacy for workers and immigrants, made a lot of socialists fond of Bourdain. But still, somehow, I just never threw myself into reading or watching his stuff.

So for all I know, if you’re a Bourdain fan, this documentary directed by Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) is your idea of the perfect summation of the man’s life.

I hated it. From what little I know of Bourdain, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to make a boring film about him, but Neville has succeeded. He’s brought such a dull, prosaic sensibility to his subject that Bourdain gets dragged down along with it, treating his well-known drug addiction, his emotional volatility, his lifelong periods of black depression as if they’re shocking to the point of being inexplicable.

These people really need to get out more — especially among creative types, which Bourdain always aspired to be, and worked hard to become. He loved film and literature before he loved cooking, and he’d had vague dreams of being a writer before he became what he himself called a dedicated but nevertheless “mediocre” chef.

For a lot of writers of any ambition, drug addiction, emotional volatility, black depression, and, at the very least, suicidal ideation, are just another day at the office. Bourdain tells a story in the film about how, when he first shot up, he watched himself in the mirror and liked what he saw. He tells the story as if he knows it’ll shock viewers, and indeed, judging by this film, he seems to have surrounded himself with pearl-clutchers who profess incredulity over what they regard as his self-destructive impulses.

It’s baffling. Hate to break it to Neville and Co., but alcohol and drugs routinely fuel creative lives — and a lot of other lives as well. It’s nothing new or unusual.

Early on in the documentary, we’re told that on his first show, A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain began rewriting the narration that closed out each episode with more and more fury, until he finally told his producers that he didn’t see why audiences even needed these redundant, dumbed-down summaries at all: “They get it.” Ironically, Roadrunner traps Bourdain’s entire life story inside its own redundant, dumbed-down summary in a clumsy attempt at catharsis for his fans.

Turning a documentary into a lugubrious elegy for Bourdain seems like a raw deal for a person who explicitly said that he wanted no ceremonies or sermons after his death, though he wouldn’t mind some lively pal putting his body into a woodchipper, grinding it up and spraying it out all over the place, making a bloody mess, like the fate of Steve Buscemi in Fargo: “I’d love that!”

Instead, his artist friend David Choe, while bemoaning the fact that “people who commit suicide get murals,” volunteers to go out and deface an actual public mural of Bourdain, saying “He’d love it if I did that.”

So, in the end, we watch Choe, supposedly in the spirit of gleeful outrageousness, splatter paint all over an enormous mural of Bourdain adorned on the side of a building. Right off the bat, there’s something phony about the whole thing — the mural looks kind of flat and impersonal in a way that’s not typical, if you live in a city with a lot of murals. (I used to live in Oakland. Murals everywhere, all highly idiosyncratic.) And you can’t help but wonder if Choe would really have had the nerve to deface somebody else’s mural in broad daylight.

Turns out the whole thing was faked:

While murals to Bourdain have popped up in various cities since his death, Neville told Thrillist in an interview that the mural seen in the movie is actually one the documentary commissioned, something that’s not obvious to viewers. He also revealed that that Choe spray-painted the mural and cut his hair — which he hadn’t done since Bourdain’s death — at Neville’s request.

Then there’s the ethically questionable scene in which an AI-generated simulation of Bourdain’s voice reads aloud a private email he sent to his friend Choe about depression. Neville insists he got permission from Bourdain’s estate to do this, but apparently that might not be true either.

Several of Bourdain’s friends and colleagues condemn him harshly for committing the “bullshit act” of suicide. One notable exception is Bourdain’s longtime brother-in-arms, celebrated French chef Eric Ripert, who was with Bourdain in his final hours. But in Roadrunner, Ripert flatly refuses to discuss the suicide at all, saying mildly but firmly, “We don’t talk about that.”

It’s more than understandable that survivors would get angry at a friend’s suicide. Yet Neville captures many of Bourdain’s associates deploring his romanticism, rage, and excesses as if they weren’t essential parts of who he was.

Despite being wildly successful, Bourdain was pretty open about feeling wired up in a dark antisocial way he couldn’t fully comprehend. In an unsettlingly revealing (and ethically questionable) therapy session staged and filmed for a 2016 episode of his CNN show, Bourdain admits that no matter how great his life looks from the outside, he’s unable to access any kind of satisfaction or contentment from it that lasts beyond a few moments here and there. But he doesn’t believe there’s anything to be done about it, saying only: “I’m afraid it’s too late.”

The source of both Bourdain’s rage and visible unease in a world eager to make him welcome is a mystery to him. There’s a great scene on a pleasant, windswept beach from his adolescence where he looks around and asks: “What was I so angry about?”

Sorry to be personal, but I had that experience too, once, when returning to my hometown, which I’d hated growing up. Beautiful town among hills and trees and rivers. What was I so angry about? Only my answer was clear. It was a terrible culture — an affluent, insular, elitist, overtly racist white town, and my family, riven by economic struggle, mental illness, and alcoholism, was among the poorest and most socially isolated there.

But Bourdain had no such clear answer, and seemed to have been — from the sketchy details the movie provides — the black sheep of a well-off, well-adjusted family that worried a great deal about him. (The movie curiously neglects to mention that it was Bourdain’s own mother who connected her son with New Yorker editor David Remnick, thus kick-starting his entire career.)

I now look back regretfully on my too tolerant, mostly favorable review of Neville’s earlier documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? about legendary children’s television host Fred Rogers. In it, I discussed how Neville skated over the uglier aspects of Fred Rogers’s ultraconservatism in order to create a sobby hagiography of the widely beloved Mr. Rogers he knew the fans would pay to see — but ultimately, I let it go. I shouldn’t have.

Once the press got ahold of Roadrunner fabrications, it became clear that Neville isn’t even remotely interested in acknowledging the documentary form’s long and troubled history on these ethical questions. Charged with his cynical use of a Bourdain-simulated voice, Neville dismissed it all:

“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Neville told The New Yorker. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

It was that sneering carelessness that pissed off the documentary community more than anything. Because it’s not as if Neville is mounting some deliberate, experimental challenge to the documentary form and its supposed ethics. He’s made a conventional film meant for commercial release, and is apparently laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s this attitude of his that explains the confusing and careless way Roadrunner presents its footage. You often don’t know what you’re looking at or listening to: Are we watching a home movie shot by a friend or family member, or already televised footage from one of his shows? Are we listening to narration he recorded for his TV show, or dialogue from an interview, or even an AI simulation of his voice saying something he never actually said aloud?

Apparently, Neville neither knows nor cares that offering up this kind of uncited and spuriously doctored-up material undercuts the reliability of the whole project. So it’s not as if I can recommend this slovenly documentary whole or even half-heartedly. If you’re dying to see any and all Bourdain footage, no matter how carelessly presented, go ahead and see it. If you want to witness a sloppy, unethical, exploitative, overlong mess of a documentary, this is a prime opportunity.

Otherwise, you might want to steer clear.