A Film About Anthony Bourdain review – genius painted in broad strokes

The hungry wanderer’s wit and intellect make for compelling viewing in an otherwise conveyor-belt documentary

Here it is, finally arriving on Netflix, the Anthony Bourdain documentary that sparked controversy last year when director Morgan Neville revealed he’d used AI to bring the chef’s voice back to life – three poignant lines from an email he’d sent to an artist friend. “My life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: are you happy?” Bourdain took his own life at the age of 61 in 2018. In the end, the AI deepfake gimmick is perhaps the most interesting thing about what is otherwise a conveyor-belt film with plenty of talking heads, some more fawning than others. (Rule of the thumb: the more famous the interviewee, the fewer the insights.)

Anthony Bourdain in his No Reservations television series, 2005.
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Bourdain had been “a mediocre chef in a middling restaurant” – his words – when his memoir Kitchen Confidential shot up the book charts. At the time, food was the new rock’n’roll, and Bourdain was like a cross between Iggy Pop and William Burroughs – a bad-boy former drug addict with a dry, laconic wit. At 43, he had thought all his adventures were behind him. Instead, Bourdain landed a TV show – A Cook’s Tour, later Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations – which took him around the world. The film-makers have done a terrific job here trawling through episodes, stitching together footage to create a portrait of a man who went out in the world with open eyes, hungry for encounters and meaning.

The film is a reminder of just what a brilliant writer Bourdain was. He describes falling in love with Vietnam as being “pheromonic” and, like meeting the woman of his dreams, “inexplicably it looks and smells right”. Fame led to the breakdown of his first marriage. The 250 days a year he spent on the road filming resulted in a friendly divorce from wife number two, mother of his daughter. I was uncomfortable with how some of his friends framed Bourdain’s final romance with the film-maker Asia Argento; blame the woman.

Bourdain says at one point that the greatest sin is mediocrity – a little of that creeps into the film perhaps. Not that Bourdain would have cared. He professed not to give a hoot what happened to him after death: “Throw me into the woodchipper and spray me into Harrods in the rush hour.”

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