The very strange premise of Jonathan might be its most compelling element: Ansel Elgort plays Jonathan and Jon, two brothers who share the same body. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the body belongs to Jonathan, a quiet, fastidious young man who works part-time at an architecture firm. From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., it belongs to the garrulous, charismatic Jon, who works part-time at a law firm and likes hanging out at his local bar. Jon, who barely ever sees the sun, has wild hair and a laid-back demeanor, while Jonathan has impeccably combed hair, jogs every day, cooks healthy, economical meals, and speaks in clipped, precise sentences.
It’s an obvious setup for a Jekyll and Hyde scenario, but director Bill Oliver plays it straight. The two selves communicate via video messages they leave for each other at the end of their respective days, detailing what they did and saw and who they interacted with, lest either be faced with something unforeseen.
As might be expected, that something unforeseen turns out to be a girl. The two brothers don’t have a rule against sex (not that the introverted Jonathan ever gets to have any), but they do have a rule against commitment. So when handsome, likable Jon goes and gets himself a girlfriend, Elena (Suki Waterhouse), without telling Jonathan, rifts begin to appear in the siblings’ relationship. Jonathan begins tracking his brother’s movements and becomes intrigued by this mysterious new woman in his life.
I won’t reveal the ensuing complications, though they’re not entirely unpredictable, but it is at this point that the film’s setup, so painstakingly established in the first half, starts to pull on the escalating emotional conflict of the characters. These two boys, we’re told, started life in anguish, fighting for control over the same body, and were only able to come to their present accommodation thanks to a small implant that keeps one dormant while the other is present. Anything that upsets this equilibrium threatens to make one sibling dominant over the other. To put it more simply, one brother can mentally kill the other, sort of. He can also, of course, physically kill them both.
That sets up a potentially interesting dilemma, but unfortunately, the film’s structure works against our emotional involvement. The problem is that we see the story almost entirely from Jonathan’s perspective. One can see the visual and stylistic appeal of such an approach: The world we’re presented with is a highly ordered one, but it’s punctured and eventually consumed by the increasing messiness of Jon’s nocturnal existence. (The idea of a chaotic life occasionally punctured by bouts of healthy food, regular exercise, and fastidious sleeping habits would be less dramatic, I suppose.)
But in order for any of this to work, Jon still has to come through as a real person. The film makes the case that, even though they’re both the same corporeal presence, these are two entirely different people — with different wants, different passions, different ways of seeing and experiencing the world. It’s an intriguing, challenging notion, made even more challenging by the fact that we can’t really see one of these two people, aside from the video transmissions he sends his brother. The drama requires us to buy in fully to this conceit — especially since there’s nothing particularly urgent keeping the duo from simply telling those close to them about their condition, and coming to some kind of workable arrangement. The story makes no sense if we don’t fully believe that Jonathan and Jon’s differences are genuinely insurmountable.
This is where Elgort proves to be fairly invaluable. He shows real range here, and deserves credit for what emotional resonance the film does have. Our brief glimpses of the charming Jon make us want to see more of him, and we do feel for the immaculate solitude of Jonathan’s existence. We’re told repeatedly that these two brothers love each other — that’s another reason why girlfriends aren’t allowed — and for the most part, we believe it. Which is why it’s so frustrating that the picture can’t go beyond the mere pathos of this odd existential situation and really convey the anguish of this untenable dilemma. Jonathan is good enough for us to want it to be better.