I don't hate it, but I absolutely would not have seen it in the first place if it weren't for Shahrukh. And it is better—more interesting, less painful, more likely to be rewatched (though I'm in no hurry and would not be sad if I never saw it again)—than Jab Tak Hai Jaan by a long shot.
the long version
The biggest punch in Chennai Express lands immediately as the film opens. The subsequent runtime of the film has kicked the details out of my head, but the basic gist of it is Shahrukh, at what is clearly the onset of a huge brawl, saying something like "My name is Rahul, I'm 40 years old, and I'm about to do something I've never done before" (or maybe it's "I find myself in a place I've never been," but you get the idea) and holding a shovel up by his shoulders like it's a baseball bat, business end ready to come crashing down.* That seems to be in essence what the purpose of the film really is: put King Khan in a different 100-crore scenario than he's ever been in before and show he can do this style of blockbuster (or a blockbuster with a certain set of formulaic trappings) in his own way but just as successfully as Salman or Ajay Devgn or Akshay Kumar (Aamir having left his bloody-toothed smashy-smash in Ghajini, it would appear).
This particular iteration seems (relatively) thoughtfully made for him: lots of opportunities for the quivering ~ eyebrows and tears to kick into action, a big romantic gesture, actual reflection on his priorities and his culture, some good (if not full-throttle) dancing and heroine-authored dream moments that justify the arm-fling, and cleverly running away more often than fighting. The film repeatedly gives spoken and visual reminders of how Shahrukh Khan, at least at first glance, does not have the physical presence of even a stylized southie masala hero and there's little indication in the actor's body or in the character that he will have any kind of force to him whatsoever (he is costumed in enough shirts that you don't really see his arms and torsos until later in the film) (though I think the revealing of SRK's muscles on screen has generally been for fantasy and beauty more than force anyway). Of course, only the fictional villains don't know that he will eventually defeat them, but the story makes good use of him being stronger in body and character than they expected him to be.
And speaking of a hero being smaller-scale than we might expect in a film from this director or of this approximate type: can we think of another Hindi hero who, in this setting, would bill himself after the heroine (especially when their roles are of basically equal until the finale brawl) and then basically create an offering in song to one of the biggest superstars in the country when said superstar doesn't appear even in a cameo in the film? I'm trying to imagine Salman doing a song about the greatness of Rajnikanth and it just doesn't work in my head. And no one would care if Ajay did it. I don't know what exactly it means, or might mean in how we think of him later in his career, that SRK has done a "Hurrah for Rajnikanth!" song, but no matter how silly or fluffy the song, I think it says something about his own version of superstardom, one that seems to acknowledge some...humility? humor? self-awareness? sense of the order of things? Aside: is there a list somewhere of songs by one hero in tribute to another? It'd be a fascinating read/watch. Off the top of my head, I can only think of "Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte" from Rab Ne Bana Jodi, and that was much more about eras of films and iconic pairings than about one particular actor (and if anything may have been a way to equate SRK with, or insert him into, that list of icons).
Rahul's refrain of "Don't underestimate the power of the common man," which the writers worked into the dialogue at least five times more than was strictly necessary to establish it as a motto, is exactly what they're doing within the story and at the more meta level, showing that this famously once-outsider now-mega megastar can do what many of his primary contemporaries are doing despite his biggest hits and most famous roles being in other types of movies. I think it will take more than one film to establish SRK as a north-goes-south sort of hero, but he's showing he can do a tailored version of it if he wants to—and if audiences want him to, of course, which, based on what I'm reading about the box office for Chennai Express, we do. The film seems well aware that it's doing something different with its star, and maybe that's the reason for the onslaught of references to Shahrukh's previous films.
Aside from maintaining my standing as a student of Shahrukh Studies, I had no reason to watch Chennai Express. It's really not my kind of movie—give me just plain Shetty over his son any day—and I only had any interest in it when I first heard about it because of its star. Once reviews started coming in, my curiosity about Deepika was piqued. I thought she was very good in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaani and was pleased to hear she had turned in another strong performance. Now that I've seen it, I'm really puzzled by her rave reviews. She is perfectly fine but doesn't do much in particular with her role. Nor does she have much interesting to work with (as is so often the case) except to act relatively sensibly (as is so rare for heroines) in a world full of idiotic men (back to "so often"), though I am grateful to the writers for giving her a chance to have fun with Tamil film witch characterization. With the exception of some lovely waterfalls, the brightness and order of the pastoral get-away village, and some moments of songs, the look of the film is...fine? It's not anything I wish I had screencaps of for visual inspiration or aesthetic bliss, let's put it that way. The brief comic relief moment with the little person is surely going to stand out as a WTF WAS THAT moment of 2013, with filmmakers doing everything in their power to strip his humanity short of giving him wings and painting him green.
The first ten minutes of biographical and family sketch prelude are pointless and charmless and feature Shahrukh being given dialogues that suit someone half his character's age, resulting in a very bumpy start. I'd like to see a rewrite that followed "tell, don't show" with some of that, maybe having Rahul stand on the train station platform with his backpack and urn while doing a voice-over about how he was supposed to go to Goa with friends but his grandma asked him to take his dear grandfather's ashes to Rameshwaram, so he thought he'd try to fool her. I'm also not a fan of his squirrely shenanigans on the train. We all know Shahrukh can stammer and squirm to great effect, but he doesn't hit the right notes this time, maybe because we know he is, and he clealry looks, just too damn old to be so juvenile. Honestly, I'm not sure what the right notes would have been, but cutting the length of this bit, or dialing back from 11 to something around 7, would surely help.**
I read at least half a dozen reviews and many more tweets about Chennai Express before I saw it, so maybe my attempts to manage my expectations accordingly were just really effective. As awkward and pointless as parts of it are, I truly do not understand the hatred and disappointment this film has inspired. Once the train stopped at Meena's village (and was never seen again), I thought the movie worked perfectly well at what I understood it to be trying to do. The only aspect of "what the film is trying to do" that I personally care much about is the persona and iterations of Shahrukh the star, so maybe I inadvertently ignored some big problems?
To close, I want to discuss whether the film actually succeeds in making any coherent statements about women after the somewhat sassy heroine and grandstanding have finished. One friend told me she found the ending "bathshit regressive." My reaction is more an uneasy balance of several moments from across the film. Meena is still the object, rather than a real participant, in the marriage customs that she and Rahul enact to convince people they're a real couple and, in the end, restrained by her father, forced to watch a horribly violent fight involving the man she loves, and then literally handed over to him by her father (probably the worst possible way to evoke DDLJ). And I desperately wish there had been another female character with a name other than dadima. But on the other hand, in much of the story Meena has a lot of agency and makes her own decisions and she gently wields strength as the translator for Rahul (information is power!). I love the very appropriate and surprisingly direct moment in the otherwise stultifying speech Rahul makes near the end about how India's independence is incomplete and hollow when women are still bound and treated like property. What do you think? [Update to post (August 12, 2013): there are lots of great ideas about this in the comments. Do read them.]
Bonus: very fine subtitle fail when, in discussing the immersing of grandpa's ashes in the ocean, "fulfilled rituals" appeared as "fun-filled rituals."
* For those who haven't seen the film, it then flashes back from that point to a brief sketch of Rahul's upbringing and family for about ten completely wasted minutes, then puts him on the titular train and the real story begins, only getting back to this moment in the final ten or so minutes.
** Holy product placement. That was so incredibly brash I almost have to admire them for having the cheek to try it so bold-faced-ly. I'm not sure how successful it is, given that the product is literally tossed out the window early in the film and never referred to again. Even if viewers remember the phone and its features, I think we could just as easily read that sequence as tongue-in-cheek comment by the filmmakers and cast about the disposable nature of corporate intrusion into their work.