Review: “Roadrunner” Shatters Everything We’ve Projected Onto Anthony Bourdain
Roadrunner is the first movie I’ve seen in theatres since the Pandemic arrived to blow all of our shit up.
I’m happy that I went, out of my own interest, but also out of a familiar concern about “spoilers” that my own lizard brain, acclimated as it is to the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse, was reacting to as early reviews started coming out.
This was a good documentary, and it made me upset.
Specifically, it made me angry. And not for any particular reasons that I can identify, either.
That’s sort of why I’m writing this post. It’s been close to a day since I came back from Roadrunner and I’m still finding that I am upset for some very subliminal reasons that really aren’t obvious. I figured a film review would be a good way to explore what they might be.
Why did Roadrunner make me angry?
It’s not because it “rehumanized” Anthony Bourdain. Part of why I consider him a hero is precisely because he was a human being, a “nice asshole” who didn’t hide from his shittier qualities.
I knew that going into the movie there would be some moments where his friends would talk about some of the awful things he said and did near the end of his life.
Speaking as a fan and unwitting acolyte of Bourdain, I wasn’t expecting Roadrunner to deify Bourdain. That’s already happened, and three years later, even I — someone who has both an online and real-life shrine to Uncle Tony — am starting to get leery about it.
You turn someone into an icon and they lose their humanity, which goes against the initial reasons why we loved Tony in the first place. It was Tony’s ordinary joe status, the working class, ne’er-do-well writer-chef who got to live this extraordinary life and be himself in the process, that created my connection to him.
Re-humanizing Tony is a good, if hard, thing. Roadrunner does that.
Most notably, the scene where Dave Chang shared that Tony had told him that he would “never be a good father” got to me, both for seeing another great chef and storyteller who I admire break down, but also because of a short exchange near the end of that segment that went something like this (I don’t remember the exact wording):
Neville: Do you think he was projecting?
Chang: Of course he was projecting.
Up until this point, I’d been lost in the whirlwind of the documentary itself, which starts with Tony’s seemingly-overnight success of the Kitchen Confidential book at the age of 43 and takes us on a focused yet-thematically complete overview of the second act of his life. Director Morgan Neville — who also created the excellent Ugly Delicious series on Netflix hosted by Chef Chang — did well to keep on a generally focused chronological path that didn’t feel like reading a Wikipedia article in the process.
But when Neville mentions “projecting”, it made me reflect on just how much we fans have all projected our fondest hopes and dreams and ambitions on Tony, both before and after his death.
There’s a saying in the personal growth field that “perception is projection”: basically, what you see in the outer world is shaped by what your mind is predisposed to make of it.
How much of the Tony we saw on the screen and the one that we mourn today still was the real Tony, and how much is the Tony that we want to see?
If we value authenticity in the truest, non-buzzword sense of the term, then anyone who’s been touched by Bourdain’s legacy must force themselves to drop their preconceptions and projections, and see the man as he was.
Most of the footage that was in the film isn’t anything that a hardcore Bourdain fan hasn’t seen before, though there were several cutting room floor scenes that Neville decided to include that show that Tony was indeed suffering near the end. I think in particular of the Far West Texas dance scene in which one of the locals is caught on mic remarking “He looks like he’s sitting over there cryin’”.
These clips are wrenching to watch, many of them taking place in the second, sadder half of the two-hour film which you know is coming. Somehow, knowing what’s ahead did very little to steel me against the waves of emotions that made me grateful to be sitting in a socially-distanced theatre with the lights out. I hate crying in public, though sniffles were audible in the darkness from all around.
Yeah, you really do re-live the heartbreak of Tony’s death all over again, a kind of post-traumatic reaction, made all the more sharp when you see it in the faces of his friends who agreed to interview Neville for the doc, people that, like Tony, you feel you’ve known forever but whom you’ve likely never met: David Chang, Chris Bourdain, Alison Mosshart, Josh Homme, Dave Choe, Eric Ripert, Helen Cho, Lydia Tenaglia, Ottavia Bourdain-Busia, to name just a few.
We see almost all of them choke up or break down, and one realizes then that as much as we think we knew Tony, they actually did. To them, he was a friend, not an icon, and they miss him.
Most wrenching for me, I think, was Eric Ripert, who had found Tony’s body on June 8th, 2018 at the hotel in Alscace, France. He point blank says “we don’t talk about that” when asked about that night. Ripert’s expression was stony and stoic, though his eyes say something else. That did me in.
I found myself thinking of a couple of my good friends, best friends, and what they would say if I was in Tony’s place. Would I really do that to them?
I’ve been in that dark place and have a mental health strategy that I developed with my old counsellor to keep me out of it. When I am low, I reach out. Tony also reached out, but didn’t really follow up.
Near the end, Mosshart asks, lighting a cigarette, “what the hell are we supposed to do?”
That could be one clue as to why I left Roadrunner feeling angry. Like, what are we supposed to do now? Tony took us on one amazing ride after another, and many of us have spent the last three years watching re-runs and just chasing that thrill.
(This is especially true of the last year, when most of the world that Tony explored had simply ceased to exist as we know it. We’re still not sure if it’s all coming back. There’s a lingering background anxiety that however much we wanted to follow Tony’s globetrotting example, we may have forever lost the chance).
I’m pretty damn mad at Tony for killing himself, have been since 2018, though it’s not like I haven’t acknowledged that to myself or others. Neville’s primary mission objective with this doc, according to him, to find out why Bourdain killed himself, but that’s conjectural at best. We can see, however, how much his friends have been hurt and are still grieving him.
Was Morgan Neville tilting at windmills, then? Maybe on that same subliminal level, I felt the documentary could have shown us more of Tony’s impact, the first act of his life (this was first time I’d ever seen his first wife Nancy), had Neville used a broader scope.
Was it the backhanded way Asia Argento was set up to blame for Tony’s suicide that fed my anger?
I’ve refused to comment much on Argento’s involvement for the simple reason that I have no idea what their relationship was like. Human relationships to me are private things, even if you’re a celebrity. You may relinquish your ability to walk through the streets without people coming up to you for handshakes and autographs, but your intimate relationships are your business.
Of course, my heart is with Ottavia. I really wish Tony had stayed with her. Seeing Ottavia in what she’s declared to be the last public appearance where she talks about her late husband was difficult as well. Tony left her widowed and raising their daughter Ariane on her own, before which, as we see in the documentary, he hurt her again by telling Ottavia to remove all her posts with them as a couple so as to not interfere with Tony’s budding relationship with Argento. If you’ve got any sense of empathy, you can’t help but be upset.
That said, I’m left wondering: had Tony not killed himself, would we still hate Asia Argento? She seems to have many of the same personality, DGAF traits that we admired in Tony, right? I have no idea what their dynamic was actually like outside the filters of network television and social media. I’m just an NPC in their life.
I understand Neville’s concern that interviewing Argento would be upsetting and introduce “narrative quicksand”, but not having her at the table creates an implicit bias to the documentary no matter how explicitly you say “Tony did this to himself” in the piece.
Maybe it’s my sense of fair play, but given that our hearts were already in the sausage grinder, it couldn’t have hurt that much more to hear Argento’s side of it. After all, Tony held space for many people who were personas non gratas in their respective subcultures.
And whatever her other problems were and are, Argento, too, was someone that Tony loved. Doesn’t that qualify her for an olive branch? At the very least, if we were still intent on condemnation, we could do so with all the cards on the table.
I dunno. I really don’t. I don’t have any answers, and I’ve written too much already without really going anywhere near an answer to why I’m feeling what I feel.
I am still angry and hurt and sad at the end of this piece, and also grateful having watched Roadrunner. In the end, maybe it was the abrupt ending that mirrors Tony’s own abrupt ending that has me reliving these complex feelings.
(The AI thing, too, bothers me, but Helen Rosner took care of that in her New Yorker piece, so go read that).
This is not Tony’s last ride: with many more hours of unused cutting room floor film, it won’t be long before someone makes another documentary with another take on Tony’s life.
But Roadrunner does feel like the end of canon storytelling for Anthony Bourdain, like the last book in a series. Anything that follows now will be fan fiction.
We won’t see the same entourage of friends come together again to talk about Tony, and as hard as it is, they’ve started to move on.
I don’t know if we, as fans and devotees, are ready to do the same. Honestly, probably not.
Jody Aberdeen is an author, copywriter, Millennial mindset coach, and podcaster. He is the creator and host of “Stories of Uncle Tony” on Instagram and lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.