As advertised, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is indeed a documentary about the late brash bon vivant who came up as a chef but found unexpected new avenues of creative expression, and familial contentment, long after he thought any such thing was possible. His exploration of the writing, travel and TV industries entwined to establish Bourdain as a prominent and beloved philosopher in a pop-cultural sphere, and his late-in-life fatherdom is among the few sweet aspects explored in this film.
Given my feelings about the film’s controversial, much-publicized use of digital fakery to feign voiceover from Bourdain (whose actual voice features prominently throughout), it’s only fair to be upfront about my general objection to the ethics of this entire endeavor. For about 80 minutes or so, the latest documentary from Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbor?) is pretty but vacant — stuffed with talking heads and Queens of the Stone Age alongside whom Bourdain spent considerable chunks of life. They seem like they’re in an informal competition to wax as poetically as Bourdain once did and deliver, as Bourdain might describe it, “meaningless platitudes and bland, generic sum-ups.” To quote one friend: “He was dark as fuck, man.” To quote QotSA frontman Josh Homme: “Life’s about finding a cliff worth jumping off.” To quote Bourdain: “The greatest sin is mediocrity.”
Indeed, there is nothing you’d get from Roadrunner that you couldn’t get in more eloquent and contemplative detail from watching just one episode of Bourdain’s numerous series or even listening to him read but one chapter of his many books. As far as the greatest sin, though, Bourdain might walk that line back if he knew what Neville pulls in the final act. It revs up with some upsetting activity in the Congo that purports to explore the inevitable way that the isolated nature of Bourdain’s travels inured him to violence but instead comes off as some sort of Apocalypse Now cosplay fantasy. Then, it shifts into some embarrassing cross-promotional slobber from Bourdain’s fellow personalities on CNN (which co-funded Neville’s production). But then, much like its namesake’s nemesis, Roadrunner runs right into the ravine with an astonishingly misguided effort to interrogate what — or more specifically who — might have precipitated Bourdain’s 2018 death by suicide, with all the aesthetic and A-roll choices of some tawdry true-crime series.
Spoiler alert: The movie suggests that it’s actress / director Asia Argento. In fairness, Argento’s history suggests she is a troubled and tumultuous person. However, in the way he edits together comments by those to whom he speaks, Neville does all but blame Argento for the corruption of Bourdain’s human spirit, creative collaboration and will to live without so much as letting us know whether she denied requests for on-camera conversations (or if they were even offered). In discussing her, numerous Bourdain production partners come off as vultures who had stripped clean his bones and thrown their beaks skyward as if to say, “Hey, man. We tried to warn him about her. We did what we could.” Even more of Bourdain’s friends embark on some kind of macabre derby to determine how deeply they were affected by his death; pretty sure the response of “you let me down” to a dear friend dying by suicide is not the sort of empathetic encouragement those experiencing the ideation would want to hear, and no one cares that you’ve not cut your hair since. This movie should come with an additional content warning for insensitive assholes. In saying “that’s something I don’t speak about,” only Éric Ripert emerges from the parade of performative responses to Bourdain’s death with emotional reticence.
Roadrunner is ultimately so appalling in its sleaze that I felt like I needed a shower when it finally had enough sense to end. So yeah, the fake Bourdain voice is bothersome, but it’s hardly the worst thing this has going for it. But while we’re at it, let’s talk about Neville’s insistence that no one would be able to tell the difference. With such an iconic, bassy bounce that you’d recognize even if you’d only heard it a couple of times, Bourdain’s actual voice is unmistakable from the obviously synthetic, tinny stand-in of any digital double. Set aside that the words it’s reciting are from a previously unreleased personal email to a friend (obviously never vocalized into a mic by Bourdain in life), it’s so instantaneously recognizable as a fake that for Neville to suggest no one would notice speaks volumes about what he thinks of his audience’s intelligence. Prove him wrong and meep-meep straight away from Roadrunner, one of the worst documentaries ever made.