A shoot and a miss. Coming off a lukewarm reaction to his last Marvel release, Thor: Love and Thunder, writer-director Taika Waititi seemed primed to return to the small-scale comedies that made him an indie darling in the first place with Next Goal Wins. If anything, his fans have certainly been clamoring for the filmmaker to tackle stories more akin to Hunt for the Wilderpeople and less like the somewhat controversial Jojo Rabbit. A classic underdog tale and sports drama, Waititi’s latest actually wrapped shooting in January 2020 and now seems to have ended up on the wrong side of Ted Lasso due to numerous delays. Nonetheless, if there’s room for a fourth Thor movie, there’s room for more than one feel-good soccer comedy. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t feel particularly good.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison, Next Goal Wins follows Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a perpetually grumpy Dutch-American soccer coach who finds himself sent away to American Samoa to try to turn their national team – known as the worst in the world – into something more presentable. There, Rongen is faced with a culture clash and a rag-tag team of misfits that he tries to get up to standard to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. If you’ve seen any kind of sports movie before, then you’re probably already familiar with this story. Oddly enough, Taika Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris do their absolute best to not challenge that notion in Next Goal Wins. While the plot and visuals are both as by-the-book as possible, it does free the film up to chase its true ambition: character-driven comedy.
Boasting Michael Fassbender, known for his dramatic performances, in a comedic turn, Next Goal Wins is presented with the opportunity to show off some of the dead-serious actor’s untapped potential. It’s unfortunate then that Fassbender’s gritted and stiff performance as our down-on-his-luck soccer coach is downright confusing. Thomas Rongen is given quirks that aren’t nearly defined enough to become traits and the performance jumps tone from scene to scene at best, shot to shot at worst. At the same time, Rongen isn’t presented as particularly volatile, and the pretty standard character archetype being dealt with here is mutated into something that feels entirely divorced from reality. Rongen acts as a conduit for whatever joke he needs to be party to while also being treated as a legitimate, dramatic figure that viewers are meant to care for.
The biggest crime of Next Goal Wins is just how unfunny Fassbender is. It’s a crime shared by most of the ensemble cast too, from well-known dramatic actors like Elisabeth Moss to even the more experienced comedic players. Will Arnett is given a role suited to his recognizable sense of humor, but even Arnett on his home field can’t make the lines of the script work. New Zealand actress, and Taika mainstay, Rachel House (Thor: Ragnarok) is given long, awkward gags that do her absolutely no justice. Most of the rest of the cast feel like they were written for Taika himself to play, boasting his trademark talkative goofball personality.
The best of these Taika-like characters is Tavita (Oscar Kightley), the optimistic owner of the American Samoa national football team. Kightley brings a particularly charming presence to the screen and manages to stand out among a cast of characters who are either left undeveloped or given nearly identical voices. Why Taika kept himself to what is essentially a guest role (not that it kept him off the film’s poster) is unclear, but it’s restraint that the rest of the movie doesn’t share.
In many regards, Next Goal Wins feels made with abandon. Emotional beats are either unearned or done with a vein-popping level of try-hardness. One such story element is in the relationship between Rongen and Jaiyah (Kaimana), a fa’afafine member of the team. Jaiyah is a secondary protagonist and initially butts heads with Thomas. This leads to a baffling series of scenes of Thomas being transphobic followed by a moment of Jaiyah reaching out to him to apologize. Jaiyah’s actions are given very little motivation, from her initial pushback against Thomas’s leadership to her being the one to reach out to the man who repeatedly and maliciously deadnamed her. Between Thomas’s presence in American Samoa to his struggles with his own daughter, Nicole (Kaitlyn Dever), Jaiyah exists in this film to serve Thomas’s narrative, which, again, is difficult for such a back-and-forth main character.
Next Goal Wins is a sports movie entirely uninterested in being about sports and a comedy trying a little too desperate to be funny. The story, focusing on a team of fumbling losers, establishes one concrete dream for American Samoa’s National Team: to score a single point during a game. It feels appropriate, then, that this project should aim as low as its subjects. Flaunting a cast of great actors who are entirely undervalued and an interesting piece of history that is twisted to make it more conveniently fit the formula that Waititi has no interest in challenging, the film feels entirely devoid of ambition. Next Goal Wins isn’t quite the apotheosis of the lazy sentiment that “not every movie needs to be a masterpiece, things can just be fun,” but it sure feels like we’re getting there. It’s also still not very fun.