At one point during Roadrunner, the new documentary about Anthony Bourdain, Bourdain is on a horse ride through the Italian countryside with his last girlfriend, Italian actress and director Asia Argento. Argento asks Bourdain as they survey the landscape, “Do you feel like you’re in one of your cowboy movies?”
The conversation evolves, with Bourdain telling Argento how he’s always wanted to live in a movie. “Why would you want to live in a movie?” asks Argento, who comes from a family of filmmakers. “I dunno,” Bourdain says. “Because movies are better than real life, I guess?”
“But movies are an illusion,” says Argento.
My first impression of Anthony Bourdain was that I didn’t like him. In the beginning, I knew him only through promos for one of his early TV shows. Here was this gangly beanpole in cowboy boots, talking to us via performatively jaded voice-of-God narration, who seemed to be the ultimate personification of New York-Invented-Punk. If you grew up anywhere else, you’re sort of hardwired to hate this kind of person — who treats New York as the center of culture in between drags on a cigarette and brags about not being able to drive. Which is to say, Bourdain initially struck me as A Type Of Guy.
Yet somewhere during the course of his career — partly through actually reading his books, partly through his shows evolving into something a little less performatively anti-cuddly (Bourdain in the beginning existed largely as the Anti-Food Network guy) — I started to get the sense that Anthony Bourdain and I were simpático in some meaningful way. It was a feeling I rarely, if ever, voiced out loud because I knew how corny that sounded. Bourdain was a guy who seemed to make everyone feel that way. He was an all-purpose aspirational avatar for the common man. This was foundational to his entire appeal. Sure, to the world I might look like some dork filing TPS reports in a cubicle, but in my heart I’m a world traveler, sampling shots of cobra venom at a Thai bar and indulging lengthy but meaningful meditations on everything from egg salad to Henry Kissinger.
There’s nothing sadder than thinking of yourself as the guy from TV. And yet, there were objectively some specific parallels between Bourdain and I, weren’t there? Movie obsession, punk rock, literary non-fiction, even jiu-jitsu in his later years — this guy liked all the things I like! What if he wasn’t just A Type Of Guy, but the same Type Of Guy I was?
Even for Morgan Neville, Roadrunner’s Oscar-winning director, this notion of Bourdain-as-fellow-traveler was central to his decision to take on the project. “I’d made films about Iggy Pop, Keith Richards, Orson Welles, Johnny Cash,” Neville told me. “These were Tony’s heroes. Not that taste equals understanding, but at least I felt like I was starting at a place where I had some baseline understanding of the type of guy he was.”
Neville went so far as to make a playlist of every song Bourdain had ever mentioned in a show, piece of writing, interview, or podcast. It ended up being 18 and a half hours long. Because Bourdain was such a “culture vulture,” with interests so diffuse and far-ranging, it raises an interesting question: was there actually anything to that feeling of shared purpose? Or was it the horoscope effect? Did we truly share some central humanity with Anthony Bourdain, or was it simply a kind of inevitable overlap, a triangulation between us, as cultural consumers, and Bourdain, as the ultimate cultural consumer? Did Bourdain merely become one of those illusions he loved so much?
It was a question that kept gnawing at me throughout my viewing of Roadrunner, even as the film made me laugh and cry, doing all those things movies are supposed to do, and all but cementing my notions of Anthony Bourdain as a fellow traveler. The “Roadrunner” title is a bit of a twofer: it’s the name both of a Modern Lovers song that Bourdain loved, and a description of Bourdain himself, as applied by his friend, the artist David Choe. Who points out in the film, “Tony was the only guy I know who got off heroin cold turkey.”
Thus, as Roadrunner tells it, Bourdain spent his life trying to “outrun his addiction,” transposing it to other obsessions — writing, cooking, traveling, jiu-jitsu, being a father, being a boyfriend. One of the best things Roadrunner does is to offer a pathology to explain why Bourdain was such a cultural sponge. That double entendre title is a clue to Neville’s purpose in Roadrunner, which is, essentially, an attempt at finding the essence of Anthony Bourdain the person amidst all the illusions. Obviously, he was more than just our avatar, some booksmart Jimmy Buffet for overeducated cynics.
Getting to that requires exploring Bourdain’s flaws, the things he would’ve been reticent to put on his own show. This, obviously, is a difficult prospect. Roadrunner has footage of Bourdain appearing to bear his soul, notably at a 12-step meeting in Massachusetts, and again with a psychotherapist in Brazil. Both were originally filmed for Bourdain’s own show, not as genuine introspection but simply attempts to “do as the locals do,” in which Bourdain the host would try, as he often did, to get people to open up by leading by example. He never went to a real 12-step meeting or recovery program in his own life. The clips were never meant to be broadcast, but for Roadrunner they’re perfect. Are these clips Tony offering genuine introspection or merely creating the illusion of it? I suppose it’s a bit like asking about trees falling in the forest.
Bourdain’s final chapter and eventual suicide is the elephant in the room throughout Roadrunner, a shocking end waiting to be acknowledged, explored, explained. Of course, it’s virtually impossible to explain a suicide (and I’ve had some frank conversations with acquaintances who have attempted it), but knowing that doesn’t stop us from tilting at the windmill of ultimate understanding. Survivors can only project, and then argue over whose projection is most correct. We try to retell the same story again and again, hoping that this time it will finally… make sense? Could it ever? I suspect what we really want is a different ending.
Some Bourdain friends, like Eric Ripert, refuse to discuss Bourdain’s final days at all. Others talk about Bourdain’s relationship with Asia Argento. “This is going to end badly,” and “this woman will be the death of me,” Bourdain told friends. Ah, clues! But how many times had Bourdain spoken this way other times, about other things in his life, and not ended up hanging himself? Probably a lot.
Roadrunner covers how, partly through Argento, who dramatically recounted her rape by Harvey Weinstein onstage at Cannes, Bourdain became obsessed with the #MeToo movement. He welcomed his role in it, going so far as to cut certain long-time friends out of his life after he’d deemed them antithetical to the cause.
Neville is traversing a minefield here. Almost any depiction of Bourdain in his final days, and especially of Argento’s supposed infidelity, risks being interpreted as an attempt to explain what he did. And explaining and blaming are kissing cousins in this context. Not to mention falling into any number of Evil Woman and Fatal Attraction tropes, fueling an already booming public backlash against Argento.
A lot happened after Bourdain’s death — a New York Times story about Argento paying hush money to a young actor she’d allegedly had sex with while he was underage, which Bourdain knew about; Argento insisting that they were in an open relationship. Save for the infidelity part and its perceived effect on Bourdain, none of this is in Roadrunner. You can sense Neville dipping a toe into this chapter of the story and not liking how it felt. Too late, he’s already wet.
The lack of an Argento perspective in Roadrunner is glaring. When I asked Neville about it, he told me not interviewing her was a deliberate choice.
“That part of the story is like narrative quicksand. Whenever there was more of it, it just brought up ten more questions, and it gets really complicated,” he said. “I felt like if I’d interviewed her, it would just end up in this kind of she said-they said, litigating everybody’s behavior. And it wasn’t making me feel like I understood Tony any better.”
Neville’s explanation makes complete sense, but you wouldn’t get any of it from the movie itself. Argento is merely an absence. If she’s not there, shouldn’t the film at least be clear on why? That’s the trouble with trying to create an intimate portrait of a man everyone thought they knew in some way. We all can’t help but have opinions on which parts of his story mattered most.
Thus, while Roadrunner is a love letter to Bourdain and a nostalgic watch for all of us who thought we saw something of ourselves in him, it’s also a comment on our inability to truly know anyone else. In that sense, it’s a fitting tribute to its subject, a man who tried assiduously not to present himself as someone who had all the answers. Anthony Bourdain was as much of a sucker for all those romantic old illusions as we all are.