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‘Roadrunner’ is missing something only Bourdain can explain

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain grapples with the inexplicable. Why would a man who had such a zest for life take his own life? How could a man so full of curiosity about the world choose to leave this world?

It’s a loss for us all that a man who had such a flair for relaying his discoveries about the world to the world couldn’t tell us about the pain and emptiness he experienced in his own, private world. And, of course, our loss is nothing compared to the grief his family and friends continue to feel, a full three years after his death.

Morgan Neville’s documentary tries its best to make sense of it all. But suicides are infinitely complex affairs; the motivations can be so multi-leveled and intertwined that they’re impossible to pin down. The fact this film is not up to the task, that it comes up short, is no disgrace, but it is a disappointment.

Anthony Bourdain burst onto the scene in 2000 with an astonishingly revealing look at his gritty life as a chef in a famous Manhattan restaurant. Kitchen Confidential was not only a huge bestseller, it changed the trajectory of this former heroin addict’s life.

He became so heralded as a writer that he soon left his restaurant job and spent most of the final 18 years of his life galivanting around the world with camera crews in tow. His various TV series (“A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations,” “The Layover,” and “Parts Unknown”) were all marked by his distinctive writerly scripts, a sardonic, world-weary tone, and a sly sense of humor.

Anthony Bourdain cut an iconic figure, a chain-smoking smart ass whose too-cool-for-the-room vibe often gave way to surprise bouts of enthusiasm for this culture and that. As is noted in the film, his food-and-travel shows became less and less about food and more and more about the cultures he was experiencing in his travels.

To his legions of fans, much of the first 80 or 90 minutes of this two-hour movie will feel familiar. Chockful of clips from his TV shows, the doc sometimes feels like a highlight reel of Bourdain at his charming best. Interspersed with these clips are talking head sequences, with many of his closest colleagues, friends, and most poignantly his second wife.

Relatively short shrift is given to the first 40 years of his life — loving parents, 20-year-marriage to his high-school sweetheart, heroin addiction, kicking that addiction. Neville does dig up some pertinent footage of Bourdain through the years musing on death and suicide. At one point, he mentions he doesn’t want to have a big splashy funeral, unless it’s for entertainment value. He even jokingly entertains the possibility of his corpse being fed to a woodchipper. Gruesome, yes, but more in a black humor way than a personally revelatory way.

In the film’s last half-hour or so Neville offers up relatively fresh information about Bourdain’s last year of his life, and as valuable as it is biographically, it’s also the most problematic part of the documentary. Perhaps without intending to, the film seems to blame his latest flame, actress Asia Argento, for his downfall. When a photo of her with another man showed up in a tabloid, Bourdain apparently went into a tailspin from which he never recovered.

Plenty of his longtime work colleagues saw her presence as a destabilizing force in his life, but since Morgan couldn’t convince Argento to do an interview, the film seems a bit unbalanced and unfair to the actress. Another lifelong friend, wary of “always blaming the lover,” tries to right the balance a bit by adamantly insisting “Tony killed himself,” and no one else. Other friends also weigh in, doing their best to understand the incomprehensible. Valiant efforts all, but somehow not enough.

Neville includes a telling TV clip of Bourdain returning to the seaside restaurant where he first honed his kitchen skills. Bourdain says he was an angry young man back then and goes on to muse: “What the hell was I so angry about? This was paradise.”

What’s missing in Roadrunner is inevitable. What it needs is the impossible, Bourdain himself explaining his actions as only he could. To the outside world, he was living in paradise. But only Tony could make us understand how for him, at least, it was hell.

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