Film Review: Jonathan

Directed by: Bill Oliver; Runtime: 95 minutes
Grade: C

The psychology and logistics involved with someone having dual personalities has made for absorbing cinema over the years, from the philosophical rebellion of Fight Club to numerous more direct, outlandish thrillers that'll remain unmentioned out of respect to their twists. Jonathan, the feature-length debut from Bill Oliver, differs from those films in two important ways: the duality of the main character is revealed right at the beginning, instead of near the end for shock value or existential significance; and the duality is literal in nature, in that two brothers occupy one body and evenly split the time of day between them. While the dramatic nature of Oliver's thriller might directly tap into the unique problems and considerations of how one person could live entirely different lives in the same body, the oddities and inconsistencies are also more pronounced, which isn't helped by the requirement for the actor to portray overly dissimilar versions of the character to get the point across.

Baby Driver's Ansel Elgort plays the two halves of Jonathan, who couldn't be further apart if they tried. One half, which would be considered the main character in the film, is a well-mannered and reclusive person whose ambitions of becoming an architect are limited by the time constraints of their condition. Jonathan takes the morning and mid-afternoon shift of their existence, while the other half, John, takes on the nighttime and the pleasures that it brings. They have specific rules about how to conduct themselves, from the amount of time they both sleep to ensuring that they exercise and eat right without overdoing it, which get relayed through video logs that they record for each other. Perhaps the most important and complicated rule comes in their agreement to not engage in a romantic relationship -- sex is okay, but girlfriends aren't -- and a rift emerges when Jonathan discovers that his brother hasn't held up his side of that agreement. The film explores what happens when the balance is thrown off.

When an actor must play two versions of the same person, the audience needs to be able to identify which one's onscreen at a given time, and that often leads to exaggerated personality traits to hammer it home. Elgort's two versions of Jonathan are no exception, and the stark differences between the two distract from whatever genuineness could be developed within the idea. He's played something of an introvert with charisma in Baby Driver, so it's disappointing to see that absent from his stereotypical bottled-up portrayal of an introverted architect. Conversely, his loose attitude as the "wild" brother goes too far into the spectrum of a lout, kind of like what you'd imagine if someone introverted were trying to act laid back and cool. There's too wide of a discrepancy between the two Jonathans to take ‘em seriously -- more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than they should be -- and the film's purposes would've benefited from allowing each to exhibit just few of one another's traits.

Jonathan revolves around the psychological drama involved when one half of their functioning puzzle starts to go off the rails: when one of the brothers starts to encroach on the other's existence by living it up at night, taking up more of the other's time, and breaking their rule of not having a romantic partner. In its raw form, the concept can be intriguing, hinged on the somewhat science-fiction thought exercise behind what it'd be like if the two halves of one person stopped cooperating with one another. The frustrations of the responsible one interacts with the devil-may-care exuberance of the other, and Jonathan does try to sustain a balanced portrayal of the brothers, not allowing the daytime architect to be purely the good guy nor for the nighttime reveler to be nothing but a villainous entity. Coupled with a sharp, absorbing performance from Suki Waterhouse as the tender, genuine, if indistinct girlfriend caught between ‘em, the dramatic suspense still makes one want to learn how Jonathan will react next.

The biggest problem with the film revolves around how we're dropped in on this scenario as if it's just become a conflict within Jonathan's life, even if some backstory confirms otherwise. Despite quick references to the past and the presence of Patricia Clarkson as a research doctor-slash-therapist, the story operates under the pretenses that certain everyday issues haven't turned into problems for the pair of mid-twenties young men until now, especially the confusion that occurs when one version of Jonathan bumps into an acquaintance of the other version. Once the idea gets introduced that one half of Jonathan can become destructive and outright claim time from the other, the concept unravels and loses control of the boundaries that kept it resembling a reputable character study. There's a desire to embrace the intensity of their clashes over sovereignty of their human vessel, but in the process writer/director Oliver introduces more conundrums and logic gaps than the drama can withstand.

The motivations and insecurities built around John's wilder and more (self-)destructive persona remain barely interesting enough to continue following Jonathan toward its conclusion, hinged on how the two personalities will -- or if they can -- resolve their existential differences. Alas, following a major revelation about their history of juggling personalities, Bill Oliver's conclusion leans into vague interpretation over what exactly has happened within the character's mind, fumbling with abrupt editing and Elgort's increasingly murky performance in an attempt to engage the audience's perceptions and interpretations over what they're seeing unfold. Transforming this plot into a puzzle-box at the end doesn't work, where a scramble of fear and guilt between the conflicting twins generates suspense that leads to an untethered resolution, intentional or not. Nothing's left standing at the end of Jonathan to suggest that the twins should've done anything but follow their own rules, and that's unsatisfying.

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