Review by Jacquelin Hipes
Imagine sharing your life with another person. Not through marriage or parenthood. Literally split your day in half, allocating twelve hours to a sibling that shares your body but not your mind. Straight-laced Jonathan (Ansel Elgort) has been doing it his entire life. Taking the “day shift” opposite his brother John, he works part-time at an architecture firm, using an ill relative as the excuse for his inability to commit to more hours. The two split chores and other responsibilities, leaving one another brief video diaries about the other half of their lives in order to avoid suspicious inconsistencies.
Beyond these daily check-ins, the brothers abide by a simple set of rules. One of the most important, and most difficult to abide, is forgoing any romantic attachments (don’t fret: casual sex is fine). When John (the more rebellious, outgoing of the two, seen only via his video recordings) gets caught carrying on an illicit relationship with bartender Elena (Suki Waterhouse), Jonathan is understandably upset. Involving a third person in their complicated lives invites trouble, especially considering her ignorance about John/Jonathan’s situation.
The film that unfolds from this initial conflict, like the two brothers it follows, can be divided into two halves. One verges on the edge of a romantic thriller: when John breaks it off with Elena at last, Jonathan finds himself drawn to the girl who compelled his brother to break their rules. When this conflict resolves itself before the movie achieves a feature-length runtime, though, Jonathan shifts into the territory of a cerebral science-fiction drama…or at least, it attempts to.
Again like the two brothers, Jonathan’s two halves are interesting enough on their own. Yet when forced together, problems arise. The shift in direction feels more abrupt than natural and the disbelief we as viewers are asked to suspend slowly progresses from manageable to overwhelming. Each section develops with such self-assurance that it feels less like indecision as to how the story should progress, as it does a misguided conviction that both the external temptation and the inner turmoil plaguing Jonathan/John could be adequately explored.
Elgort resurrects much of Baby’s persona from last year’s hit Baby Driver for aspiring architect Jonathan. Although the act works for him, it doesn’t do much to endear him to viewers without the added boost of Lily James’ effervescence. His alter-ego John often comes across as the more interesting personality, yet we only glimpse him though the video diaries both brothers use to keep track of the details of their shared life. Patricia Clarkson makes an appearance as the brother’s therapist and doctor, a role that practically begs an actress of her talent to go through the motions.
On the whole, Jonathan is a confusing film. Not for a convoluted plot or unclear narrative goal; instead it brings together interesting concepts and performers talented enough to bring them to life, yet by the time the credits roll, you don’t feel as entertained or as challenged as you suspect you ought to have been. With the regular appearance of prestige science fiction on both the big and small screen in recent years, Jonathan had an opportunity to distinguish itself as another cerebral look at man’s relationship with himself. It’s a shame that it only puts in half the effort.
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