LA Film Fest 2018: Jonathan, by David Bax
Once, on this website’s official podcast, Mystery Science Theater 3000 alum Frank Conniff observed that we are, for the most part, past the point of producing the kind of truly awful movies they lovingly mocked on that series because the baseline of filmmaking ability has been pulled up over time. If so, Bill Oliver’s Jonathan may represent the new status quo for bad movies. It’s so ruthlessly competent in its construction and execution that an inexperienced viewer may initially mistake its aptitude for quality. But you don’t need to have seen all that many movies to soon grasp how inexcusably thin and dumb it is.
Ansel Elgort plays Jonathan, a sufferer of a multiple personality disorder. Elgort also plays his other identity, who simply goes by John. In this version of the present, though, a doctor (Patricia Clarkson) has invented an experimental implant that keeps them separate. Jonathan has control from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM and John has the other twelve hours.
Elgort is apparently considered a divisive actor but his easy confidence is Jonathan’s strongest attribute. Jonathan and John refer to each other as brothers and Elgort plays them that way, two distinct people with a subtle but considerable overlap.
Jonathan is more fleshed out than John, though. The movie’s title is no accident; Jonathan is our only point of view character. We only get to know John through the video messages the “brothers” leave for each other at the end of their respective shifts. Unfortunately, one of the movie’s most glaring problems is that it’s one-sided in other ways, too. The dramatic tension comes from a love triangle scenario in which both personalities fall for the same woman, Elena (Suki Waterhouse). Despite Waterhouse’s skill as an actor, Elena comes across almost as a parody of the type of female characters the Bechdel test was designed to avoid. She does not appear to exist for any purpose other than to serve Jonathan/John and the plot. In fact, the entire narrative actually hinges on her not thinking for herself. When Jonathan, for instance, tells her something about John, she never follows up on it with the latter, despite knowing exactly where and when to find him.
Jonathan’s other main issue is that its concept is too high to maintain itself without constant attention. Like Inception, it keeps having to stop to explain itself. Every major character change is accompanied by a change in the plot mechanics that then must be made clear to the audience. The guys from MST3K would be too busy keeping up to even be able to make fun of it.