Fanciful French film whimsicality is a dicey prospect for the contemporary moviegoer. When it comes with a strong central narrative and a likeable character, a la “AmAclie,” it's light and palatable as a morning croissant. When applied to a sweeping period piece like the prewar backstage romp in “Paris 36,” it's like walking through the 7th Arrondissement with a telescope.
It's difficult to say who the central character is in “Paris 36,” or who the story's about, because though all have potential, there are many important characters and the story's about so many things. There's a stage manager trying to save a theater along with his livelihood and his cast of eccentric actors while getting his little boy back from a conniving ex-spouse. There's a night club canary deciding between her love for singing and her union-organizing beau. And last but not really least, a gangsterish businessman makes them all miserable with what could be called machinations, if in fact they were ever given — like everything else in the movie — more than a glossing-over of attention.
The result is a vibrantly shot pastiche of Parisian life from the tourist's point of view and a backstage rags-to-riches tale that never quite gets going. A rousing finale might satisfy some audiences who just want breezy sentimentality set to theme-park-style French atmospherics. All that and a cafe's worth of exotic camera shots, however, can't overcome a generic and hazy movie that never delves below the surface of its characters or 1930s France. (PG-13) 121 min. HHIII — Wayne Melton
EDITOR'S NOTE: This film opens Friday, May 15.