Film Review: Next Goal Wins
Next Goal Wins
Director: Taika Waititi
In Theaters: 11.17
The problem with being a star player on a winning streak is that when you have a less-than-perfect game, it gets over dramatized to make it out to be a disaster. It happens often in sports, and it’s happening with Taika Waititi and his new film, Next Goal Wins.
Inspired by true events, Next Goal Wins follows a Dutch-American soccer coach, Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender, The Killer), who has been shuffled from one team to another due to his volatile personality. Rogen finds himself at a crossroads, facing two choices: no job at all, or accepting the less-than-coveted position of head coach of the American Samoa national team, known far and wide for their infamous 31-0 defeat in 2001, the largest margin in international football history. Seeing little choice, Rongen heads off for the island where he finds a ragtag group of players who seem ill prepared to make it through a practice, let alone compete for a spot in the World Cup. Together, they must overcome their insecurities and put the past behind them as they strive to become a smoothly functioning team and set their sights on trying to score one goal.
After Thor: Ragnorok breathed fresh life into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and JoJo Rabbit won him an Oscar for screenwriting, Waititi skyrocketed to the top of the list of most-sought-after filmmakers in Hollywood, and lately it feels as though every other week there’s an announcement of a new Waititi project. Even amid divided sentiments on Thor: Love and Thunder, the expectation is that anything Waititi does is going to be wild and audacious and will reinvent the wheel. In contrast, Next Goal Wins isn’t just a formulaic sports comedy, it’s one that feels thrown together quickly and lazily. Every dramatic and comedic beat is strictly by the numbers, and while it’s got Waititi’s signature offbeat tone, most of the jokes are quite stale, and even when you haven’t heard them before, you can still see the punchline coming.
Character development also feels rushed to an almost jarring point: While Coach Rongen has an arc that isn’t complete until the third act, he rather abruptly goes from an infamously angry man who deeply resents his new job to a fairly amiable guy going with the flow, with few strong moments to prompt such a change. On the plus side, the film is fast paced and lighthearted, and I found its sweetness appealing.
Fassbender is a terrific actor, and he gets more out of such an underdeveloped character than seems reasonable to expect, though he’s short changed in his character’s dramatic arc. Between this and the dumbfounding underuse of Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) as Gail, Rongen’s ex-wife, it seems likely that there was some significant footage left on the cutting room floor in order to give us a lean, 103-minute runtime. The strongest character is Jaiyah, played by newcomer Kaimana. The real-life Jaiyah Saelua was the first openly non-binary trans woman–athlete to play in a World Cup qualifier, and Kaimana gives a luminous performance that stands out as the best thing about the film and is reason enough to give it a recommendation.
Next Goal Wins is an enjoyable, offbeat sports comedy that could and should have been a lot better, though it’s not nearly as dreadful as its most vocal detractors would have you believe. It’s simply a great deal less than what you’d expect from a visionary “wonder kid,” to borrow a phrase from Ted Lasso, which is still the best soccer comedy you’re going to see any time soon. –Patrick Gibbs