The epic highs and lows of professional soccer can be seen most weekends out of the year—thankfully, Next Goal Wins will only be in theaters for a few. The film sees writer-director Taika Waititi return to his indie roots, but the result is hardly as good as the likes of What We Do in the Shadows or Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Rather, Next Goal Wins is an empty quasi-comedy, filled with cliche jokes and tired bits.
NEXT GOAL WINS ★ (1/4 stars)
Based on the documentary of the same name, the film follows the American Samoa men’s national football team as they go from the worst ranked squad in the world to, well, a potentially decent team. It all happens under the tutelage of Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a pro-turned-coach whose string of managerial failures leads him to the island. Rongen doesn’t exactly join federation president Tavita (Oscar Kightley) and ex-coach Ace (David Fane) willingly, and the why and how of it all remains murky throughout the film, but he’s basically determined to see his assignment through. Namely, the federation wants him to get the team to score just one goal.
The players are painted in broad strokes, with only a few other characters getting significant screen time. One is Daru (Beulah Koale), Tavita’s son who’s suspicious of their new coaching prospect, while the other major player is Jaiyah (Kaimana), a fa’afanine individual on the team who’s in the process of medically transitioning. In real life, she’s the first openly transgender player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier; in the movie, she’s the only real source of pathos.
Next Goal Wins is as hollow as a soccer ball and nowhere near as rounded. Fassbender’s coach is sent to American Samoa half as a punishment for a vaguely bad coaching stint, half as a retreat; his estranged wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) inexplicably works for the board that has the power to hire and fire coaches at will, and she thinks a change of scenery would be good for him. Why exactly he’s been banished from coaching stateside is never made terribly clear (there are a few clips of Fassbender angrily throwing chairs on the touchline, but football fans worldwide have certainly seen worse behavior), and his need for a trans-Pacific intervention even less so. There’s some family trouble hovering over Rongen’s head, which characters intermittently tell him is holding him back and bogging him down despite never really being a focus of the movie.
The film lacks stakes, which is, in part, by design: the goal at the heart of Next Goal Wins is just to score a point, after all. It’s a void that one could expect a filmmaker like Waititi to fill with genuine laughs and novel comedic ideas, but he fails completely. A great deal of the movie’s jokes involve references that make the whole thing feel dated. As he gets off the plane to American Samoa, Rongen regurgitates the infamous Taken monologue to a local reporter; The Matrix and The Karate Kid are quoted ad nauseam; Al Pacino’s locker room speech in Any Given Sunday is shown and Rongen draws from it later. It’s a bizarre comedic crutch that doesn’t yield any chuckles, and neither does Waititi’s other main strategy of highlighting characters’ silly accents by having them babble, shout, and cheekily poke at stereotypes without actually being subversive.
Jojo Rabbit was understandably not everyone’s cup of tea (and it never should have won the Oscar over Greta Gerwig’s Little Women), but at least that film tried something new. If you’ve ever seen any sports movie, you know how Next Goal Wins will end; if you’ve seen any comedy, you know most of the film’s jokes already. The movie fails to make an impact, and you’re sure to get more comedy and drama out of your average Premier League weekend (if not just one Everton F.C. game) than Next Goal Wins.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.