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Roadrunner Review: Anthony Bourdain’s Passion for Life (and Death) on the Road

By Lori Perkins

We all loved him. We all thought we knew him because he was so eloquent at exposing himself, and we took his many words as truth. This documentary show us we didn’t really know him at all, but also, unfortunately, he didn’t really know himself either.

It’s a hard documentary to watch, and it will make you sad, because the reason you’re watching it is because you have an attachment to this man and what you thought was his joie de vive.

The film starts as Bourdain is getting ready to launch his new celebrity life as author and chef. It shows us how at 43 he went from paycheck to paycheck to the NY Times bestseller list and lovingly traffics through his appearances on David Letterman, Oprah, a crowded Barnes & Nobles book store reading. It’s heady.

We meet his best friends, his literary agent, his first wife (of almost 30 years), the married producer/director pair who launched his first TV show, A Cook’s Tour on the Food Network, where he traveled non-stop for six weeks to Japan, Bangkok, Singapore and Vietnam. He loved Vietnam and Apocalypse Now and watched it over and over again. Bourdain and Eric Ripert of NYC’s Le Bernadin said they would retire there.

But he worked nonstop. He was on the road for two years straight after his book, Kitchen Confidential, was published. It caused the end of his first marriage to his high school sweetheart, and gave him a new life, which he shared with us, but looking back on this, he said, “I burned down my previous life in its entirety.”

Then came No Reservations on CNN and that Beirut episode as war broke out (for which he won an Emmy and a Peabody Award), where he crossed the Rubicon and began making his travel commentary as much about the politics and people of a place as about the food.

He became more and more famous. His staff, who were his friends, were overjoyed when he fell in live with Ottavia Busia. His director was shocked when he said he was going to be a father in his mid-50s, because, as David Chang, another close chef friend explained, he had told him that, “for most of my life I wouldn’t have been a good father. I was afraid.”

He fell in love with being a father. “It was a shock to him to experience that kind of love that late in life,” explained his producer Lydia Tenaglia. But he was traveling 250 days out of the year, and with an infant, his wife and child couldn’t be with him on the road. She added, “it was a job impossible to escape from.”

Another colleague added, “he was always rushing to go somewhere next even if he had nowhere to go.” Josh Homme of the rock band Queens of the Stone Age, a friend who thoroughly understood the stress of the road added, “it’s a bittersweet curse – nothing feels better then going home and nothing feels better than leaving home.”

By the time Bourdain began filming Parts Unknown, he had been around the globe 26 times in two decades. He was alone, but traveling with an entourage of people who genuinely loved him, but he couldn’t see it.

His friend David Cho, an artist, shared the story of how Bourdain told him he had quit his heroin addiction (because Cho, who said he was never addicted to drugs, but is addicted to everything else – food, people, experiences-- said he never met another addict who had gone cold turkey like Bourdain). Bourdain told him, “I looked in the mirror and I saw somebody worth saving.”

But others said, “the addiction jumped. When he threw himself into something, he did it completely.” That explained his passion for jujitsu at 58. And the end of his marriage to Ottavia. Said Tom Vitale, an episode director and friend, “I don’t think there was ever anything that would have lasted forever in his timeline.”

The film ends with Bourdain falling head over heels in love with Asia Argento and having those who loved him explain that he was in love with love, and how that itself was an addiction. Chris Collins, his long time producer, said it was a time where “manic highs were very very high; lows were ugly.”

Cho added, he was a “life-long addictive personality [and now he was addicted] to another person….He’s a fucking runner. He ran for a long time, but you’re not going to outsmart pain.”

The documentary details the end with the betrayal by Argento and Bourdain’s suicide in Province, France (after a lunch in the countryside with friend Eric Ripert).

Cho asks, “how does a storyteller check out without leaving a note?”, but makes it very clear that “Tony did it. Tony killed himself.”

Roadrunner is many things, but it is foremost a film about the people who loved Anthony Bourdain, in spite of himself.

Roadrunner makes you see clearly that Anthony Bourdain was a true romantic. He loved everything too passionately, but the one thing he could never really love was himself.


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