‘Next Goal Wins’ Movie Review: Taika Waititi Wins with a Surprisingly Heartfelt Crowd-Pleaser
I was the biggest skeptical of Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins. Turning a true story (and adapting from the 2014 documentary of the same name that is unfortunately unfindable anywhere online prevented this critic from watching it beforehand. This is another reaffirmation that physical media trumps streaming any day) into a Taika Watiti farce isn’t the best idea in the world.
However, it’s not as grating as Thor: Love and Thunder and seemingly knows when to dial down on the more absurdist elements of the movie to infuse some heart into the proceedings. It’s not a perfect movie by all means, but it’s a much better effort than his previous film and disastrously unfunny and uncreative episode of The Mandalorian.
As mentioned, the movie is based on a 2014 documentary chronicling washed-up soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who was forced to travel to American Samoa to coach its horrible soccer team. Before Rongen’s arrival, they were known to carry the worst loss in professional soccer history, with a 31-0 score against Australia in 2001. Rongen now has the difficult task of shaping up the team to qualify for FIFA and at least score one goal, which they have never done in their history.
So it’s a reasonably conventional underdog tale that has been beaten to death repeatedly, but with a mise-en-abyme that sees Waititi (as a priest) break the fourth wall to narrate this tale. He’s arguably the worst part of this ordeal, drawing a series of unfunny jokes that stretch on for far too long in the hopes of spicing up the more forgettable aspects of the movie. The ambition is certainly welcome, but it certainly doesn’t work. That being said, a post-credit scene that caps off the movie involving Waititi’s character did make me laugh, so there’s that.
Some of the jokes in the actual movie also go on for way too long, most notably a running bit about manager Tavita (Oscar Kightley) having boobs drawn on his face by a permanent marker. Still, they’re somehow not as irritating as when Waititi bludgeoned every single joke to death in Thor: Love and Thunder (those damn goats better be seeing Hell right now). But plenty of jokes work surprisingly well, including an altercation with American Samoa’s sole police officer who believes Rongen is driving like a “maniac” (30mph instead of the speed limit of 20) but doesn’t have a siren to pull him over.
All this stuff is classic Waititi and more in line with the humor he drew in films like Boy, Eagle vs. Shark, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. He seems more jubilant in translating this story on screen than he went through the motions while working in franchise machinations. And even with shoddy material, his actors are more than game to be a little absurd despite the story’s seriousness. Kightley is the film’s significant supporting highlight and gets the most comedic material to work with. Some of his material doesn’t work, but he always makes the most out of every scene he’s in, and there’s some genuine heart in his portrayal of Tavita that you ultimately feel for him as the film ends.
But I can’t say the same for the other supporting characters. Kaimana has the most development as Jaiyah Saleua, the first openly non-binary and transgender player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Waititi wants to make them the emotional anchor of the picture and have Rongen attach himself to them (because of an event involving his daughter that gets explored near the film’s end), but the arc is hit or miss. Don’t get me wrong: Kaimana is phenomenal as Saleua, but was it necessary to have Rongen deadname them to show how emotionally broken he is? Absolutely not.
Still, the film makes up for these icky moments through a devastating scene where Rongen finally realizes his purpose as a coach. Instead of putting his interests at hand, he should’ve listened to the team more, and learning it through Jaiyah’s eyes felt moving. With The Killer, it was finally great to see Fassbender back on the big screen after a four-year hiatus with the release of Dark Phoenix. And he’s equally as good as Thomas Rongen in Next Goal Wins, effectively balancing out his more comedic side with massive amounts of heart, rarely seen in his on-screen portrayals.
His portrayal of the coach never veers into absurdity and always remains level-headed. He shares excellent chemistry with Kightley and Kaimana but not so much with Elizabeth Moss and Will Arnett. Moss plays his ex-wife and Arnett, her current boyfriend (also Rongen’s boss), and the two are so pitifully underdeveloped that they undermine Rongen’s arc. Though it’s not necessarily their fault: Arnett replaced Armie Hammer, who was cut from the film after allegations of sexual assault surfaced, causing Waititi to reshoot several sequences with Arnett and Fassbender. The part Hammer reportedly played was a cameo, but Waititi wanted to expand the character’s role with Arnett, which makes his scenes feel uneven and poorly stitched together.
But even then, Next Goal Wins reaches its final sequence where all the pieces come together, and the American Samoa team rises to the occasion to finally prove themselves as an actual soccer team who can [hopefully] score one goal. The first half of the sequence is as formulaic as it gets. Still, the second half is, once again, classic Waititi, subverting the sports movie tropes for a more comedically satisfying end to an inspirational story told through Waititi’s extremely absurd lens.
As a result, Next Goal Wins surprisingly overcomes the many hurdles Waititi creates, thanks to its inspiring story and game performances from Fassbender et al. It won’t reinvent the world or change cinema, but as an attempted comeback from the inert Love and Thunder, it’s well done for an artist who desperately needs to find his identity again. He’s on the right track, but how long will it take?
Next Goal Wins is now playing in theatres.