The long-delayed and much-awaited Next Goal Wins begins with an address from writer-director Taika Waititi himself, heavily accented and in a pastor’s garb, he informs the audience that his tale, based on a true story, has been embellished for comedic effect—as if we already didn’t know that. It’s a lazy, self-referential stab at humor and “critic-proofing” for his movie. Yet, it plays as nothing more than a clumsy attempt to obnoxiously insert himself into the film more, overcompensating for its corny, overly familiar take on a unique story about a struggling American Samoa football team that has yet to score a goal on the international stage.
This quality of overdoing it runs across the film’s 103-minute runtime, as if Waititi and company are not confident in their jokes’ ability to land on impact, painfully stretching gags until the audience is left numb, cementing a sports comedy that’s impressively unfunny and becomes more grating by the second.
Stained by a landmark 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001, the American Samoa soccer team finds itself as the laughingstock of the football federation. The team’s optimistic owner, Tavita (Oscar Kightley), turns to “the white man” for help in leading the team to a coveted first goal. For their troubles, the nation gets Dutch American Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender, in a rare, dynamic comic performance), a hothead coach who’s demoted by his contemporaries and made to oversee the flailing team’s bout for 2014 World Cup qualification. Rongen doesn’t want to be there and quickly loses hope in the team but, in classic fashion, slowly begins to connect with the eclectic bunch and the island’s ways, discovering himself in the process.
Next Goal Wins’ comic formula consistently relies on the same few gags, slightly tweaking them, whether it be obvious references to films like Any Given Sunday or banter that juxtaposes the islanders’ sweet sensibilities against callous opponents. It’s an approach that gets old fast, with the script, co-written by Iain Morris, having characters constantly speak in circles and undercut any semblance of a punchline. It’s often said that brevity is the soul of wit, and it’s a message that clearly hasn’t resonated with Waititi, as Next Goal Wins is his most eye-rolling and self-congratulatory feature yet.
Moreover, there’s an air of insincerity that shrouds the experience. Next Goal Wins makes light of a certain subject in one breath and treats it with gravity the next. This is most noticeable in the film’s handling of Rongen’s arc, as he barely bats an eye when a prospective player is run over by a bus but is wracked with grief when he later reveals that a loved one passed away in a similar Incident. Next Goal Wins is full of contradictions like these.
Rongen’s rampant alcoholism is also never touched upon, despite consuming one form of libation in almost every scene. This affectation feels like part of an arc that was left, alongside many others, on the cutting room floor, with its remnants seeping onto the screen and leaving audiences with little else besides confusion.
Waititi also struggles to give his cast of characters texture as the team, apart from Rongen and Kaimana’s Jaiyah, all blend together. Very little personality is injected into the characters—or, more aptly, caricatures— with the vibrant cultural nuances of the island being whittled down to trite quirks.
The film’s most unique and interesting character, Jaiyah, is also done a disservice. She’s a member of the nation’s Fa’afafine community and is the first openly trans person to compete in a World Cup qualifier. But her character moments are so tonally disjointed from the scenes that both precede and follow them that they feel part of a completely different film—despite being a crucial aspect of the “true story.”
The climactic soccer game is one of the few sequences that works, applying an unorthodox structure to the film’s pivotal moment. Yet, by that point, the film has lost all goodwill. Waititi’s specific brand of referential, prolonged comedy is laden with diminishing returns, and though its team may hit the net, the closest Next Goal Wins gets is the crossbar.
Next Goal Wins screened as part of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
Next Goal Wins
Waititi’s specific brand of referential, prolonged comedy is laden with diminishing returns, and though its team may hit the net, the closest Next Goal Wins gets is the crossbar.