French writer-director François Ozon almost always has a trick up his sleeve. One of his earlier films, Criminal Lovers, played like a riff on Bonnie and Clyde until it morphed into a twisted, dream-like vision of adolescent sexual awakening. The director peppered Under the Sand, a study of a woman (the great Charlotte Rampling) reeling from her husband's disappearance, with thrilling jolts of fantasy. In 8 Women, Ozon convinced some of France's most regal actresses to burst into song. Swimming Pool (starring Rampling again) was a meditation on a writer's turbulent creative process, dressed up as a lurid thriller. Last year's 5x2 dissected a marriage in reverse, bringing us anti-chronologically from the signing of divorce papers to the first spark of flirtation. Ozon has carried out his gimmicks with varying degrees of success (hint: 8 Women sounds more fun than it is), but his films have tingled with things beneath the surface: erotic dread, madness, nature's unpredictability, shifting sexual dynamics, the transience of human bonds.

The biggest surprise in Ozon's new film, Time to Leave (Le Temps Qui Reste), is that there is no trick: The movie is a somber, straightforward account of a dying young man's last few months. But, alas, this isn't a case of a bad-boy filmmaker getting serious and going deeper, à la Almodóvar with his last few films or Gregg Araki with 2005's splendid Mysterious Skin. Rather, one gets the feeling while watching Time to Leave that the feisty director is, for the first time, bored by the story he's telling. The problem is not that Ozon, who as usual doubles here as screenwriter, fails to pull a rabbit out of his hat (Ang Lee and Clint Eastwood have recently reminded us that playing it straight can yield gorgeous results); it's that what he gives us just isn't all that interesting.

The movie centers around Romain (Melvil Poupaud), a handsome gay fashion photographer diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. (Romain's assumption that the bad news is AIDS provides one of the film's few truly poignant strokes.) Forgoing any kind of treatment, Romain instead chooses to live his last few months in solitude, telling only his grandmother (Jeanne Moreau, still a vibrant screen presence) about his illness because, as he explains, she too is approaching the end of her life.

Ozon tries to up the dramatic stakes by making Romain extremely young (he's 31) and rather unsympathetic. When we first meet him, he's coaxing models into poses with a cocky professionalism so mechanical it borders on contempt, and to its credit Time to Leave is smart enough to know that a bout with cancer isn't about to turn this guy into a teddy bear. Indeed, Romain lashes out at his sister (Louise-Anne Hippeau), brutally dumps his boyfriend (Christian Sengewald), and withdraws into a haze of sullen self-absorption. But the character remains so remote, such an undercooked heap of blasé urban mannerisms, that the terrible impact of dying young never comes through. Ozon fails to bring us inside Romain's emotional process, partly because our protagonist's reactions-acting out self-destructively, pushing people away to ease the pain of losing them, learning to relish the simple things-feel basic and predictable. There's surprisingly little soul in Romain's suffering, and not much substance either.

What would a movie about a sick person's final days be without the obligatory reaching-out-and-seeking-closure chapter? (Better is one answer, but that's another debate entirely.) As per the formula, Romain ultimately emerges from his painkillers, vodka and self-loathing to reconnect with the world while he still can. The most implausible bit of this entails going to bed with a sad-eyed waitress (the wispy-voiced Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and her sterile husband. The couple wants a child, and who better to do the deed than a young man looking for one last carnal hurrah as well as-cue thudding symbolism--a means of giving life before relinquishing it? It's the most Ozonian touch in the film-the director has always been fascinated by the intersection of sex and death-but it's far from original; these kinds of sex scenes are becoming for French cinema what road trips are for American cinema: an automatic cultural signpost.

Let's face it, folks--it's hard to make a good movie about cancer, a subject booby-trapped with clichés and tailor-made to manipulate. Thankfully, Ozon is too cynical and rigorous an artist to give in to the jerk-becomes-sweetheart-through-adversity angle a lesser director might have fallen for. But damned if the material doesn't bring down his game: Instead of the crafty, provocative filmmaking the director has often spoiled us with, his new movie gives us flashbacks and resolutions. (Romain calling his sister to make amends as he watches her in a park from 100 yards away is the most maudlin thing Ozon has ever filmed.) Time to Leave is not exactly bad, but one wonders what the director expected to get out of it. Ozon has always enjoyed teasing us with the suggestion of things that lie deeper, but this time the joke's on him: He's made a movie that's skin-deep.

-Jon Frosch