Chennai Express feels like a sumptuous meal with carefully chosen wine and tasty appetizers but a botched main course.
Money and visual care have been lavished on this Bollywood action- comedy-romance, and glossy stars have been engaged (Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone). But the movie chugs along for most of its 2 hours and 20 minutes searching for comedy and characters in a frantically overplotted story.
It's not that no one is trying. Khan became the King of Bollywood with a boyish mischievousness that melts into puppy-dog sincerity. He's 47 now and working hard in Chennai Express. He plays Rahul, a callow sweets seller who for unconvincing reasons never married. Although the movie prudently gives his age as 40, the character hardly differs from a standard-issue 20-year-old hero.
Khan's efforts to invest this boy-man with charm, and the movie with comic pop, mostly fall flat. (The script works against him, too.) His performance comes alive, though, when he's dancing and when, transformed by love, he becomes serious, tear-stained and bloodied in the last 20 minutes. That old puppyish sincerity has become something like mature feeling.
Chennai Express wastes a lot of time with its elaborate setup, full of setbacks and voice-over explanations. There are a few funny bits, as when Rahul helps a gang of thugs, each bigger and nastier-looking than the next, onto a moving train, the Chennai Express. (It helps that this sequence is mostly silent.) On the train, Rahul meets Meena (Padukone), the daughter of a South Indian don. The thugs he so kindly helped have kidnapped her to bring her back to daddy, and now have made him their prisoner, too.
Toward the end, the movie shifts tone dramatically, if not surprisingly for a Bollywood film. Rahul lectures the men in Meena's village about respecting women's emotions. He then fights off all comers to win her and earn respect. Powered by love and lifted by violence, he now can lay down the law: Be nice to women. (This hardly seems a workable civic model.)
Director Rohit Shetty has a playful visual sense, evident from the first shot: The camera views Khan from below, as if he were standing on a glass sheet, before swooping up. These flourishes, though, often seem divorced from the material. Not so the South Indian scenery, made glorious by Shetty's saturated palette and showman's ability to transform nature into an eye-popping stage set.
No MPAA rating. UTV Motion Pictures. In Hindi with English subtitles. 2:20. Hamburg.