The humor is pretty one-note in Rohit Shetty’s comedy/romance/actioner “Chennai Express.” Cast as a sheltered 40-year-old suddenly thrust into multiple perilous situations, superstar Shah Rukh Khan repeatedly reacts with craven cowardice and flashes of false bravado; though played for laughs, his behavior comes across more as moral laxity than hilarious evasiveness. It doesn’t help that co-star Deepika Padukone is so likable as the rebellious daughter of a southern don, rendering the antipathy between their characters somewhat gratuitous. This North-South culture-clash laffer set an opening-day B.O. record in India with $1.1 million (beating the previous champ, “3 Idiots”), but elsewhere, its popularity may depend on audiences’ willingness to wait two hours for Khan to transform into his heroic self.
Forty-year-old Rahul (Khan) has been at the beck and call of his beloved sweetshop-owning grandfather. When the old man dies and Rahul is tasked with scattering the ashes in Rameshwaram, he decides instead to join his feckless friends in pursuit of pleasure in Goa. He takes the Chennai Express to mislead his grandmother, planning to disembark at the next station.
But fate intervenes in the form of the beauteous Meena (Padukone), a southern don’s daughter desperately trying to escape marriage to a neighboring crime lord, with four of her father’s oversized goons in hot pursuit. Rahul helps her onto the moving train, then all four of her chasers, much to Meena’s disgust.
Taken prisoner by these mammoth minions armed with scythes and guns, Rahul becomes a terrified wreck, cowering in the overhead luggage rack. He’s escorted into the village of Meena’s father (Satyaraj), where he understands not one word of Tamil, while none of the swarthy villagers speak any Hindi. Indeed, linguistic confusion forms the basis for many of the film’s comic misunderstandings; Meena, or “Miss Subtitles,” as Rahul ironically dubs her, proves the only major character who speaks both languages.
Unwittingly agreeing to fight Meena’s pumped-up, 7-foot-tall intended (Nikitin Dheer), Rahul spends most of the film trying to escape the battle in a variety of high-speed, Shetty-patented, maximum-collision chases, both with and without Meena, whom Rahul alternately abandons or reluctantly includes. A pastoral interlude at a quaint waterside community grants the couple some relatively believable tender moments, while their ongoing conflicts grow increasingly artificial as the film progresses. (Meena’s transformation into a demonic attacker reps a particularly egregious bit of business.)
Shetty’s need to maintain his characters’ romantic heroism constantly grates against his depictions of their ridiculousness. Rahul’s moral redemption under the influence of love tends to dominate the film, draining much of the comic enjoyment from characters who are either overdrawn (in the case of Rahul) and underdrawn (in the case of Meena).
Khan’s dynamic dance moves, very much on display in the energetic “One Two Three Four Get on the Dance Floor” number, are given less of a workout than one might wish in the film’s folkloric musical set-pieces, which appear more extraneous to the action than usual. Indeed, at one point during a particularly lavish sequence, isolating the prancing leads from the mass of clashing colors that surrounds them feels like an exercise in “Where’s Waldo?”