Simplicity itself, the premise for Patrice Leconte's apathetic comedy Man On The Train unfolds so squarely that it seems arranged by someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, carefully assuring that nothing is left out of place. If the film were a child's book report, it would come tucked in a see-through plastic cover. The story centers on the unlikely friendship between two men: One is a chatty, erudite poetry professor who has retired to a quiet, comfortable life in the family estate; the other is a rugged thief, a man-with-no-name type who never stays in the same place twice. Each secretly envies the other, with the professor pining for adventure and the thief wanting the stability that comes with a roomful of books, aromatic pipe smoke, and a comfortable pair of slippers. In his best work, Leconte evokes the intensity of private desires, whether it's the aging loner who peers longingly at a young woman across the courtyard in 1989's Monsieur Hire or the peculiar gentleman in 1990's The Hairdresser's Husband who finds every trip to the salon to be a sensual fantasia. But starting with the drab blue-gray color scheme, Man On The Train doesn't have nearly the obsessive passion of its predecessors, settling instead for a terminally slight chamber piece that coasts on the quirky rapport between mismatched strangers. Fortunately, one of those strangers is played by venerable French star Jean Rochefort, who carries 90 percent of the conversation as a wise and loquacious wit who has long since learned how to squeeze pleasure from the little things. He shows considerably more charisma than counterpart Johnny Hallyday, a real-life rock 'n' roll icon who looks sprung from the vintage poster of an old Western or prison movie, acting as an inert sounding board for Rochefort's lively soliloquies. In the opening scenes, the pair meet at a convenience store in a provincial town, where Hallyday arrives alone on a train to case a local bank for a midday heist and waits for his longtime partners in crime. When the town's only hotel happens to be closed, Rochefort extends his hospitality to the stranger, not least because it helps stave off his own loneliness. As the men draw closer together, their mutual transformation offers a few amusing turns, such as Hallyday pretending to be a substitute poetry teacher or Rochefort requesting a haircut that's "somewhere between fresh-out-of-jail and world-class soccer player." Though an assured and diverting piece of filmmaking, Man On The Train sags from complacency, rarely breaking its neat construction to animate the friendship with any real warmth and life. In spite of the easy chemistry between the two leads, their characters' crisscrossing desires remain strictly on the page.

Advertisement