For a person who’s made a good number of popular products, writer/director Taika Waititi can be a divisive figure. Successes like What We Do in the Shadows (both movie and TV versions), Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok raised his profile, but projects like Jojo Rabbit (for which he won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) and his over-the-top acting in movies like Free Guy have not been as well-received.
His latest, Next Goal Wins, offers both the best and worst of Waititi’s style. For decades, the American Samoan soccer team had been known as the worst in the world, never scoring a single goal and being on the wrong end of the most lopsided game in history, a 31-0 thrashing by the Australian team. In an effort to change their luck, they bring in Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender).
Rongen takes one look at the team, which is full of misfits and unathletic people, and deems them a lost cause right away. But Tavita (Oscar Kightley), head of the local football federation, convinces him to keep trying, and the team slowly starts to gel thanks to the leadership of transgender player Jaiyah (Kaimana) and the recruitment of better players who had long given up on being part of the team.
Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris make the story into a slightly elevated version of a Disney film like Cool Runnings. Almost every American Samoan character in the film has some kind of funny quirk, but showing their goofy foibles never comes off as mean-spirited. The jokes come fast and furious from minute one of the film (starting with an introduction by a priest played by Waititi himself), so a viewer’s tolerance for Waititi’s brand of humor will dictate how much they enjoy it or not.
The film does have some attempts at being semi-serious. Rongen’s life appears to be in turmoil, having to watch ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) move on with a new beau, Alex (Will Arnett). Jaiyah being a male transitioning into a female is treated as something to be respected, with only slight pushback from Rongen. And Waititi, being off Maori descent, knows how to present American Samoan customs without coming across as condescending or exploitative.
On the sports side of things, the action scenes are not that believable, but since the team is supposed to be awful, that actually plays in the film’s favor. Comedy rules the day, so whether it’s the goalkeeper not having a clue what to do or the team stumbling through drills, it’s all part of establishing them as a group that has no chance of succeeding. That, of course, sets us up for catharsis for when they actually do.
Fassbender (who just starred in the polar opposite film, The Killer) is an odd choice for the lead role. Even though he eventually gels with the rest of the cast, he still feels out of place. The actors in the American Samoan roles are almost all better than expected, led by Kaimana, Kightley, and David Fane.
A long-gestating film (principal photography actually ended in January 2020), Next Goal Wins is light and fluffy on the surface, with a few emotional punches thrown in. It won’t be confused with Waititi’s best films, but it’s a perfectly serviceable comedy if you’re willing to accept the jokes it has to offer.
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters on November 17.