Taika Waititi’s latest film, Next Goal Wins, has had a long and weird journey. It was initially concluded in early 2020 before Waititi began production on last year’s Thor: Love and Thunder, and after Armie Hammer faced a slew of severe allegations, with Will Arnett filling in and expanding on his role. Next Goal Wins has finally opened, over four years after it ended production, and the long-gestated movie is…an absolutely decent sports picture, punctuated by some superb Waititi humour, but still doesn’t hit as hard as some of his best work can.
Next Goal Wins is based on the 2014 documentary of the same name and follows Dutch-American football coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who is sent to teach the American Samoa squad, which is regarded as one of the worst in the world. They suffered the worst defeat in football history, losing 31-0, and a decade later, the squad has yet to win a game or score a single goal. While Rongen is out of his element with such mediocre players, he gets obsessed with getting the squad to accomplish that elusive goal and perhaps improving this hopeless cause as much as he can.
Next Goal Wins is a very standard sports comedy, full of training montages, bringing in new potential players, and inspirational speeches (even Rongen’s greatest speeches are lifted from Taken and Any Given Sunday). Put The Mighty Ducks on a football pitch and relocate them to American Samoa, and you have virtually the same plot.
It’s not bad, but given how Waititi has previously shaken up genres, whether it’s exploring the rom-com in Eagle vs. Shark, a witty take on the mockumentary in What We Do in the Shadows, or even finding a new angle on the historical horror of the Holocaust with Jojo Rabbit, it’s a shame that Waititi isn’t able to do so with Next Goal Wins.
Even in his poorest films (I’m looking at you, Thor: Love and Thunder), Waititi is always able to find some chuckles, and Next Goal Wins, mercifully, has Waititi’s unique sense of humour. Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners, Flight of the Conchords) use Rongen’s relocation to American Samoa to experiment with culture shock and his insecurity about his new role.
However, aside from the humour, Next Goal Wins leaves much to be desired, especially because some of the anticipated sports movie cliches, such as watching the squad improve (even if it’s gradually) or building anticipation for the big game, are all strangely absent here.
But it’s the delivery of these Waititi lines that truly sells them, and while Next Goal Wins has a good cast around the squad, it’s the players themselves who shine. Oscar Kightley as Tavita, the chairman of the Football Federation American Samoa, who only begs for one goal—which he asks for repeatedly—plays what appears to be the Waititi role (although he does make a few cameos as a funny American Samoan priest). Next Goal Wins wouldn’t be the same without Kightley, who delivers Waititi and Morris’ conversation with precisely the perfect intonation and rhythm.
The throbbing heart of Next Goal Wins, on the other hand, is Kaimana as Jaiyah Saelua, a transgender woman who is also one of the most promising players and the most helpful to Rongen. While the rest of the team is mostly known for some one-note joke or gag about their playing (one player can’t stop sliding and another is dubbed “football’s D’Angelo” because of his ripped body), Jaiyah is one of the few characters who gets a well-rounded arc and is one of the few players who stands out among the team. Next Goal Wins never quite captures the heart that makes Waititi’s films so compelling, but Kaimana’s performance gets the closest.
Unfortunately, several of the cast’s greatest stars are underutilised. It’s nice to see Michael Fassbender back on the big screen, considering he hasn’t been in a film since Dark Phoenix in 2019. Fassbender is rarely given the opportunity to perform humour, and he does so admirably here. But, as a character observes in the third act, the team and the viewer never really get to know Rongen.
We know the bare bones of who he is, that he’s a failing coach whose marriage has failed, but it’s not until near the conclusion of the film that we really learn who this man is. That last act does a lot of heavy lifting for Rongen, and Fassbender does it brilliantly, but it’s difficult to imagine this picture wouldn’t improve if we didn’t get a clearer look into his background before the conclusion.
Speaking of the bigger-name performers in Next Goal Wins, they all serve as little more than props in this plot. Arnett plays a toned-down version of the sleazebag we still kind of like, but he’s not supposed to accomplish much more than stand in the way of Rongen’s aspirations. Similarly, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Rongen’s estranged wife, Gail, is nothing more than an object of Rongen’s passion that he aspires to reclaim—a component of the tale that is essentially forgotten as the film progresses.
Waititi’s newest isn’t horrible by any means, and it’s nothing near his worst (again, Love and Thunder, watch your ass), but it’s very mediocre as a sports picture and a comedy. To be fair, who, with upbeat sports films, is seeking for a picture that shakes things up and breaks the mould? And if that’s your cup of tea, Next Goal Wins will most likely strike the spot on occasion. But, given that this was Waititi’s first picture after winning an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, Next Goal Wins feels more like a penalty than a goal.