Film Review: “Roadrunner (2021)

The movies are making a comeback now that the Pandemic seems to be receding. They’re slowly showing up in theaters now, but I was surprised that we were the only couple in the theater module showing this interesting saga of the late Anthony Bourdain. I’m a bit surprised that the theater survived for a year and a half sitting fal

Anthony Bourdain is a fascinating man who tried and failed to traverse the path between success and happiness. He opined right from the beginning that he had no particular talent for anything, yet progressed to a globally revered mega-personality propelled by dumb luck and kismet. He progressed from a line cook to a chef because of his writing skill he never recognized. Then, on the basis of his New York Times best seller “Kitchen Confidential”, producers liked his style and took a shot at trying him for a TV travel series featuring menus from the places he visited. After some gyrations, his Peabody winning CNN show (Parts Unknown) ran 11 seasons and was still in progress at his death in 1018 at the age of 61.

Not commonly made public but Anthony had seriously personality disorders including long time heroin addiction and cocaine dependence. “You know, something was missing in me, some part of me wanted to be a dope fiend,” he confesses in one scene. He very much didn’t understand how to make sense of his ascendency to what he considered undeserved celebrity. He had an open-ended passion for life that manifested in his overwhelming need to experience new places, looking for answers that remained camouflaged. His first wife of 30 years divorced him due to his impossible travel schedule. He married again and sired a beautiful daughter but this relationship also faltered due prolonged absence. At the time of his death he was involved with a younger Italian girl.

The film eloquently captures Anthony’s passions and then sadly explores his descent into a kind of madness that ultimately drove him to depend on the journey as a destination. He was a man with no boundaries but the exploration of them was always destined to fail. The food was only a small part of the aura. The thrust was how he injected his unique personality into his visits to 93 countries. He’s said to have circled the globe over 20 times in his TV career, but in the end, it wasn’t where he went in life, the substance was what he left behind, this very deftly explored in this excellent documentary.

Anthony’s quest for happiness seemed doomed from the beginning, as the journey thereof never stayed on the tracks. He had an unfortunate “imposter syndrome”, that he didn’t deserve any of it and it could all vanish in a heartbeat for no particular reason. His quest for fulfillment continued to scour the globe looking for the next commodity that would make him happy or answer his existential questions. Numerous friends and colleagues offered their assessment of Anthony’s slow descent into suicidal madness and detailed their powerlessness to interdict it.

One of the saddest and most poignant of his film appearances near the end was of him sitting at the head of a table full of jubilant partygoers, all eating and toasting, Anthony looking alone and forlorn. It was very clear at this point that this wasn’t going to end well.

The subject of suicide in the face of success was handled delicately in the film. I think, in the end that success is a fragile thing and if built on iterations of insecurity, will eventually collapse. Anthony built a fragile empire built on a house of cards. He suspected his talent and his pain were inextricably linked. The crash was inevitable but lasted longer than it might have on a platform of sheer force of personality before it began to crumble.

Roadrunner is a sad exploration of inevitable ruination the likes of which began many years before the fact. Like Anthony opines, had it not been for dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time, it could have, maybe should have happened much earlier, or maybe it could have all been a vaporous dream. It’s a very good film, recommended by me. I give it four of five Saigon sidewalk lunches (Photo 1)

By the way, the film details a number of cities Anthony visited, each of which I have set foot on at one time or another. An oil painting that I purchased from a sidewalk artist in Kowloon, two sailing Junks in the harbor between Kowloon and Hong Kong hangs in my living room. It’s picking up dust now, losing some of its luster so I guess I’ll have to have it cleaned (Photo 2).

David Crippen, MD, FCCM

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