There’s no mistaking the goofy sports biopic Next Goal Wins for anything other than the latest brainchild of filmmaker Taika Waititi. Ten years ago, few outside of the New Zealand film community knew his name but two Thor movies and multiple Oscar nominations later, Waititi has built up his own brand of idiosyncratic comedy that has seemed to resonate with audiences. He’s the first face that graces the screen in his newest film, doing double duty as both a hippie priest character and the occasional narrator for the story we’re about to see. With silly facial hair in unison with a silly accent, Waititi lays out the plight of the underdogs that we’ll be expected to cheer on for the next hour and a half. Though Waititi the actor sets up the groundwork, Waititi the director and co-writer doesn’t follow through with committed and focused storytelling.
Based on a 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins centers around struggling soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who hasn’t been the same since the divorce from his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss). At the risk of being fired by his boss Alex (Will Arnett), he reluctantly accepts a position head coaching the woeful American Samoa soccer team, notable for being on the losing end of a brutal 31–0 defeat during a World Cup qualifier. Upon landing in the island territory, Rongen is greeted by the ever-jaunty club manager Tavita (Oscar Kightley) and introduced to the flailing players that make up their national team. The goal for the season, which is to score a single goal during a game, is sent down from the Football Federation American Samoa and Rongen sets about getting the squad up to snuff.
Throughout Next Goal Wins, Waititi demonstrates that he wants to have it both ways; he wants to lampoon underdog sports comedy tropes but embrace them when the story calls for it. Perhaps that’s why some of the humor fitfully works during the story but by the film’s conclusion, it doesn’t feel all that significant. Waititi fills his film with a colorful cast of characters that he doesn’t feel the inclination to develop much, outside of transgender player Jaiyah Saelua. Played by newcomer Kaimana, Saelua has bonding scenes with Rongen that predictably break down his prejudices around gender identity while building up his ardor for coaching the pitiable group. I understand why Waititi chose to focus solely on Saelua but unfortunately, it’s at the expense of almost all of the supporting cast.
Fassbender, who also stars in recently-released Netflix thriller The Killer, is simply better suited to play a stoic assassin in that movie as opposed to playing the hot-headed soccer coach that he portrays in Next Goal Wins. He’s an immensely talented actor and I appreciate him trying to stretch his acting chops into more comedic terrain but he’s just not a good fit for this role. In addition to his scenes with Saelua, there are sparks in the brief moments between Fassbender and Moss but they don’t get nearly enough screen time to develop their relationship. There’s also a teased-out bit about Rongen’s past that is supposed to play like a big character revelation towards the ending but it all feels too obvious. Kightley fares much better as the perpetually optimistic manager, who also has to wear different hats around the sparsely-populated island as the cameraman for a show and waiter for a beachside restaurant.
It probably helps that Kightley is channeling the same kind of goofball energy that Waititi infuses in his films both as a performer and a director. Fans of the filmmaker’s earlier work like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople will no doubt find bits that work within Next Goal Wins. The movie’s finest occurs early on when Rongen is in the process of being fired; in an attempt to console him, an ex-colleague played by Rhys Darby tries to guide him through the 5 stages of grief with the help of an overhead projector and transparency slides. Rongen also demonstrates a streak of unintentionally parroting big speeches from movies like Any Given Sunday and Taken. There’s plenty of Waititi’s signature quirk in Next Goal Wins but not enough genuine pathos to balance out the field.
Score – 2.5/5
More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, starring Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, is a prequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games which focuses on future Panem president Coriolanus Snow as he mentors a tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games.
Trolls Band Together, starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, is the third installment in the Trolls franchise centering around Poppy and Branch as they work to rescue one of Branch’s brothers after he is kidnapped by a band of pop star siblings.
Thanksgiving, starring Patrick Dempsey and Addison Rae, is a seasonal slasher following a mysterious serial killer, known only as “John Carver”, who comes to Plymouth, MA with the intention of creating a carving board out of the town’s inhabitants.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup