The tradition of movies in which desperate characters put on a show to save something they love stretches from Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. It’ll probably always have a place so long as there’s some little corner of the world under threat of getting absorbed by the forces of homogenization, and it really only needs one of its two elements to work to be worthwhile: the story, or the show. That’s a problem with Paris 36, a handsomely mounted but achingly undistinguished film from writer-director Christophe Barratier (Les Choristes), who sets up a crisis in the working-class outskirts of 1936 Paris that only a big, splashy musical revue can solve, but doesn’t generate much interest in either the problem or its solution.
Closed by debt and its proprietor’s suicide, the working-class music hall Chansonia struggles to find ways to reopen under the guidance of heartbroken manager Gérard Jugnot. Their lead comic (Kad Merad) leaves audiences groaning, but their charming, golden-voiced new announcer has undeniable star quality. (So does the actress playing her, relative newcomer Nora Arnezeder; like her character, she seems destined for better things.) But trouble threatens to snuff out their modest new success, particularly since their continued existence depends on a neighborhood boss (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who supports the French fascists and jealously guards Arnezeder, whose heart belongs to a Jewish labor leader (with, of course, a talent for singing and dancing).
There’s more to the plot, including an agoraphobic songwriter and Jugnot’s estranged son. The overstuffed film lumbers across clichés of the heart and of history until it reaches a big, tune-filled climax that isn’t worth the wait. Barratier’s quotes from classic Hollywood musicals and Reinhardt Wagner’s period-appropriate songs play less like affectionate tributes than washed-out copies. Even the show-within-the-show can’t save the dull movie around it.