The life and tortured times of the late, great Anthony Bourdain

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Ardent fans who think they’re going to walk away after viewing the just released Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain documentary, with a sense of closure, better think again.

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The film, now released across select theatres in Canada, is on the life of the famed chef, who took his life back in 2018, and viewers better buckle up as it’s raw, painful and, on occasion, brutal to watch.

It also periodically reveals the iconic idol to be a pure a-hole to those he obviously loved and respected, at one point eliciting tears from one of those interviewed who genuinely thought Bordain came from that brother-from-another-mother mindset.

The film is dazzling yet devastating, compelling, hauntingly photographed with so many layers of emotion that fans will be left feeling sucker-punched and wrung dry.

And it is, without a doubt, brilliant, exposing Bourdain as if his body was on an autopsy table – the director peeling away at so many layers of this man in an attempt to find the answer to his reason for being.

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And yet the more the cameras peeled away after the director and his team patiently viewed hundreds of hours of tape, film, podcasts and more, and the dozens of people interviewed for the film who were part of Bourdain’s world, the less we understand anything about this flawed being.

For those looking for answers as to why this near-genius author, actor and activist took his own life – hanging himself abruptly in a hotel room in France, while friends and staff waited for him at the breakfast table – are going to have to wade through more bewildering questions than answers, as this Greek tragedy continues to play on.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (Won’t You Be My Neighbour fame) takes the viewer on an astonishing adventure, where we become almost voyeurs into Bourdain’s life. Yet the man encouraged this – while struggling with stardom, he shared too much of himself, yet not enough. You see him talking to everyone, shaking hands with strangers, the weariness in his face evident yet always gracious when one suspects he just wanted to be left alone.

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And yet he persevered, leaving an imprint of himself in everyone he met. Scene after scene – eating a still-pulsing heart of a cobra, waiting to butcher a pig helplessly trapped in netting at his feet, happily eating with strangers, spending loving times with his daughter – the list is long and painfully relentless.

What is glaringly missing from the documentary is the omission of Bourdain’s girlfriend, Asia Argento, the Italian activist actor with whom he had had a complicated relationship before he killed himself. Her absence is the proverbial elephant in the room, and Neville was quoted in many publications, including Variety, that he purposely omitted her because she basically said “the same thing in every interview.”  Yet this omission is harsh, leaving Argento open to criticism, and revisits the whole ugly moment right before Bourdain’s death.

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As well, it’s unnerving to hear Bourdain’s voice boom throughout the film – at the beginning he intones how his death has “zero interest to me. I don’t want anybody seeing my body. I don’t want a party, (or) recorded dead unless you can provide entertainment value in a perversive, subversive way.”

Chillingly he intones at the beginning of the film something to the effect that “there’s no happy ending here.”

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Hearing Bourdain’s voice is indeed ghastly. And it seems to have landed Neville in hot water when it was recently revealed the film used AI – artificial intelligence – to create three particular soundbites of his voice for the documentary. In a Washington Post story, Neville explains he did win approval from the late celebrity’s widow, Ottavia Bourdain, to do so, stating “it was a modern storytelling technique that I used in a few places where I thought it was important to make Tony’s words come alive.”

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But, according to the same Washington Post article, “the editorial decision to deepfake Bourdain’s voice has come under fire from critics who have questioned the ethics behind using AI for the film…among those critics is Ottavia Bourdain, his widow, who disputed that Neville approached her about recreating her husband’s voice through AI in the documentary.”

“I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that,” Ottavia tweeted on Friday.

It’s opened up a can of words on the ethics of documentary filmmaking as voiced by a small army of film critics and industry types, calling the action everything from “manipulative” to just plain weird.

One senses regret that this maelstrom will take away from the core messaging of this film, which is that Anthony Bourdain was a complicated man who kept his friends close and at arm’s length at the same time, who loved his daughter tremendously yet struggled with this role as a father. Who loved yet loathed his celebrity status.

He could be awkward and shy one moment, suave and elegant the next. Above all, a master storyteller who mesmerized everyone around him.

The problem with Anthony Bourdain is he created a person in which his followers were hoping for a new type of hip, worldly messiah. Someone who understood them.

And he just couldn’t do that.

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