Despite its overall clunkiness, Taika Waititi’s inspirational sports comedy Next Goal Wins has its heart in the right place and charm to spare. While it might not reach the heights of Waititi’s previous successes (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows, Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok), and the true story its based on has been adapted quickly and loosely, Next Goal Wins has a relaxed delightfulness about it that makes the film go down easy overall. While it might be time for the clearly overworked Waititi to take a break and recharge his creative muscles, this is a fun enough lark that will make people nostalgic for the sort of 90s and early 2000s sports comedies to which Next Goal Wins is clearly and pointedly indebted.
In 2001, to say that the American Samoan soccer team was struggling to find their footing would be an understatement. They suffered the most historic loss in the recorded history of “the beautiful game:” a 31-0 loss to Australia. In 2014, the hapless squad of part-timers and misfits enters yet another rebuilding phase, bringing in disgraced professional coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) to hopefully turn things around. Thomas’ assignment – foisted upon him by his higher ranking ex-wife, Gail (Elisabeth Moss), and his boss (Will Arnett) – is his last chance with the American soccer federation, and the hot-headed, hard drinking coach puts in a bare minimum effort to keep from getting fired. That is, until he starts seeing potential in the players and starts investing more time into ensuring that the club’s manager (Oscar Knightley) achieves his low-bar of a dream: getting the country’s first goal in international competition.
The story of the American Samoan squad is the stuff of sports legend, and was the basis for a wonderful documentary that shares the same title as Waititi’s film. But in terms of approach, factual accuracy, and overall effectiveness, this version of Next Goal Wins couldn’t be any more different from its predecessor. While there’s a natural desire to root for the underdog in most sports films, Waititi’s Next Goal Wins boasts a more cliched, convenient, and comfortably familiar sort of crowd pleasing formula. Instead of a niche story about a specific culture carving out a place for themselves in the notoriously exclusionary world of professional sports, Waititi’s film is reduced to just another tale of a band of quirky misfits brought together by a coach that doesn’t want to be there, who’ll eventually have a change of heart and lead them to some semblance of respectability. If Next Goal Wins had been made fifteen years ago, it would’ve starred someone like Will Ferrell; thirty years ago, maybe someone like Mark Harmon or Rodney Dangerfield; last year, Jason Sudeikis.
That’s why the casting of Michael Fassbender in the role of Rongen is unusual and slightly off. While Fassbender brings a pleasing amount of dry wit to the standardly written part (albeit with Waititi’s strong dialogue to back it up), and he seems to be relishing the chance to use his comedic chops for a change, the script plays like it has been created with a much wackier presence in mind. Fassbender is both elevating the material and distracting from it, which wouldn’t be much of an issue if everything else in Next Goal Wins didn’t appear so slapdash, conventional, and strangely assembled.
Next Goal Wins bears a number of obvious scars tied to its rocky production and post-production history, some more glaring than others, and which might account for why Fassbender’s presence sometimes appears out of place. (In some scenes, everyone appears out of place, exactly like none of them are in the same place at the same time when their parts were filmed.) Although the production wrapped at the start of 2020, the onset of the pandemic meant that any potential or rumoured reshoots and test screenings (which aren’t a negative thing, but really just part of the filmmaking process at this point) had to be postponed. Then there was the matter of replacing a controversial actor entirely, which couldn’t have helped with the ongoing delays. The final state of Next Goal Wins is curiously out of sorts and barely finished.
Subplots involving many of the team’s most prominent members – a transwoman (Kaimana) becoming the first nonbinary player in the history of international soccer, a redemptive arc for the goalie (Uli Latukefu) who blew that historic 31-nil loss, an overzealous cop (Semu Filipo) with a heck of a strike, the deeply felt religious beliefs and practices of all the players getting in the way – feel like they’ve been drastically cut down in a bid to keep things moving as quickly as possible. Thomas also struggles with rampant alcoholic tendencies and obvious trauma that will be explained by the end, but all of that, including the character’s failed marriage (a thread that absolutely wastes having someone as talented as Moss in the first place) is blunted and barely built.
Even the movie’s feel good moments appear like they’re struggling to set a proper tone. Gags are sometimes introduced only to have no punchline or payoff, while others start and are finished so much later that the viewer forgets they were even a thing. At one point, Thomas starts a physically demanding team building exercise with his players, and the scene doesn’t wrap up until the end of a montage that happens about twenty minutes later, well after the film has decided to go out and focus on some other stuff instead of finishing what it started. By the time this exercise has wrapped up, entire days in the timeline of the film have already passed, so why go back to it after it feels like things have already ended? (Answer: because the scene wraps up with a big speech that probably couldn’t be cut without the movie completely losing focus.)
Next Goal Wins is a mess from a technical perspective, but it’s still a cute film overall. There’s still enough heart and humour to keep everything afloat, which is a testament to Waititi’s talents as a wit and dramatist. Even though the filmmaker’s process is a lot more scattershot and unwieldy this time out, Waititi understands what Next Goal Wins needs to succeed on the most basic of levels. It might be hard to take Next Goal Wins seriously as a sports drama, but as a lighthearted comedy with a few serious elements and light touches of social commentary, it works fine enough. It’s as familiar as comfort food and warm as a hug, which for most viewers will be just fine. I certainly found myself smiling throughout, even if I questioned how a film from such an accomplished director ends up in such a state. It doesn’t hold a candle to Waititi’s bigger swings, but as a formulaic sports picture, it does the trick. It achieves a singe, meaningful goal.
Next Goal Wins opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, November 17, 2023.
Join our list
Subscribe to our mailing list and get weekly updates on our latest contests, interviews, and reviews.