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Corny Soccer Movie’s a Misfire

TORONTO, Canada—Taika Waititi’s last trip to the Toronto International Film Festival was in 2019 with Jojo Rabbit, a monumentally misguided and execrable World War II comedy that won the People’s Choice Award on its way to nabbing an Academy Award. Four years later, the writer/director returns to Canada with yet another mirthless mess, Next Goal Wins, the inspired-by-true events story of a wretched soccer team attempting to reverse its dismal fortunes. Undone by clumsy writing and inapt casting, the film—arriving on the heels of 2022’s strained Thor: Love and Thunder—is another significant misfire for the New Zealand auteur. The best one can say about it is that it at least doesn’t feature a lovably cartoonish genocidal dictator.

Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name (with “a couple of embellishments along the way”), Next Goal Wins concerns the American Samoa national football (i.e., soccer) team, which suffered a historic 31-0 loss to Australia in its 2001 World Cup qualifier match. As if that peerless defeat weren’t humiliating enough, the team habitually couldn’t score a single goal, which eventually helped it seize sole position of last place in the global standings. Waititi recounts this ignominious state of affairs via early non-fiction footage, and it turns out to be the funniest part of his film, not to mention the realest, since everything that follows is so sketchy that it feels like it was hastily penned on a collection of cocktail napkins.

A decade of incompetence later, American Samoa is desperate for a turnaround, and national football federation president Tavita (Oscar Kightley) believes that the key to that improvement starts with a new coach. As luck would have it, an outsider becomes available when Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is fired from his current post by an American football federation panel that includes Alex (Will Arnett), Rhys (Rhys Darby) and Thomas’ wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss), from whom he’s unhappily separated. Thomas is a hothead who angrily throws chairs, coolers and other objects like some second-rate Bobby Knight. Predictably, he doesn’t take kindly to his dismissal, nor to the overhead-projector presentation given to him by Rhys that details the five stages of grief he’s going through at the present moment.

To avoid unemployment, Thomas agrees to fly to the South Pacific Ocean to lead the American Samoa squad. Though his whiteness is the subject of numerous one-liners, and he clearly doesn’t fit in on this deeply religious island, Thomas isn’t greeted by the team with hostility; rather, they respond to his arrival with what amounts to a weirdly ho-hum shrug. That lack of definition is emblematic of Next Goal Wins, as Waititi fails to imagine almost anything about the film coherently, beginning with his protagonist.

A production still from Next Goal Wins.

Thomas is ostensibly a rageaholic drunk with a paper cup full of booze perpetually in his hand, and yet he’s rarely inebriated. His life supposedly revolves around soccer, but he never exhibits even a faint trace of affection for the sport, nor interest in working with athletes. He was apparently once a respected sportsman, but the proceedings barely allude to his past successes. And he ultimately turns the team around, albeit without doing much of anything other than briefly training them and delivering a single climactic halftime speech.

In most respects, Next Goal Wins is incapable of following the basic sports-movie playbook. While there are plenty of potentially colorful characters in the American Samoa lineup, Waititi only develops one of them: Jaiyah (Kaimana), a transgender competitor whom Thomas doesn’t understand or initially accept, and whom he deadnames in a fit of prejudicial nastiness. Thomas and Jaiyah share the film’s lone relationship (which feels designed to teach viewers respect and tolerance), and somehow, Waititi still manages to give it short shrift, having them squabble and then reconcile in pitifully simplistic fashion. Everyone else, from Tavita’s son Daru (Beulah Koale) to disgraced former goalie Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), get at most a single personality trait in their marginal screen time.

The appeal of underdog sagas such as this is watching lovable losers band together and figure out uniquely eccentric ways to win. Waititi, however, spends so little time on his supporting players that they’re impossible to identify, much less like, thereby rendering their entire quest irrelevant. Kightley and Rachel House (as Tavita’s wife Ruth) make the most of the table scraps they’re given, with the former exuding amusingly unflappable positivity that strikes Thomas as borderline daffy, and the latter eliciting laughs from the script’s single inspired line: staring at her husband’s face, which is decorated with permanent-marker breasts thanks to a lost bet, she rails, “Drawings of boobs are a gateway to the real thing!” Everyone else is offered next to nothing, save for a cop-turned-player named Rambo (Semu Filipo) who has a habit of doing crane-kick poses because Thomas briefly compares himself to Mr. Miyagi.

There are no consistent throughlines in Next Goal Wins; everything is haphazard and tossed off. The result is an absence of both comedic momentum and, worse, recurring jokes that build off each other. Blame for the material’s shoddiness falls primarily on Waititi and Iain Morris’ scattershot script, although Fassbender is also partly responsible for the overarching dearth of humor. The leading man is believably miserable and volatile but shows scant aptitude for making those qualities funny, and he quickly becomes something of a comedic black hole, negating any hints of genuine lunacy. Even considering that the film does him no favors, Fassbender is simply out of his element.

A production still from Next Goal Wins.

From barely dramatizing American Samoa’s incompetence on the pitch (the very quality around which the entire film revolves), to cursorily resolving its small handful of conflicts and dilemmas, Next Goal Wins is slipshod through and through. References to The Matrix, Dolly Parton, and Any Given Sunday are arbitrarily strewn about, and everything culminates with heartwarming pap about the power of happiness (“There’s more to life than soccer!”). If only because it’s more laid-back and genial, Waititi’s latest ever-so-slightly trumps his prior two behind-the-camera efforts. Nonetheless, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s best summed up by Thomas’ assessment of his American Samoa gig: “A carnival of crap.”

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