Taika Waititi is on a losing streak.
Sure, last year the New Zealand actor/writer/director earned praise for his performance of a besotted pirate in the queer comedy series Our Flag Mean Death — and sparked a resurgence of online fandom. But his reputation as a filmmaker is falling apart.
Early on, Waititi won praise for his distinctly weird and irreverent brand of kiwi comedy, which shined in coming-of-age movies like Boy and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, as well as the breakout vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, and the MCU’s funniest offering Thor: Ragnarok. But once Waititi became a mainstream commodity, his work began to wobble. Critics were mixed on his Nazi-Germany-set comedy Jojo Rabbit, which while daring was suffocatingly sentimental. Then came his superhero follow-up Thor: Love and Thunder, which shocked audiences and critics for its chaotic structure and failing punchlines. Now, here comes Next Goal Wins, a comedy that should be an easy win for Waititi, but it’s a painful miss instead.
What’s Next Goal Wins about?
Next Goal Wins plucks its story and title from a heralded 2014 documentary, directed by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison. That film followed American Samoa’s national football team (aka soccer team), as they aimed to rebuild their reputation after the most infamous loss in FIFA history. In 2001, they were shut out of the 2002 World Cup qualifiers by Australia 31 to 0.
Waititi’s film re-imagines the doc in the vein of The Mighty Ducks or Bad News Bears or Slapshot: A oft-drunk and mercurial white coach (played here by Michael Fassbender) is given one last chance to straighten out his life by leading a band of lovable losers to victory (or at least a less crushing loss). At first, he despises them for their lack of skill or cohesion. But before long not only do they come together but also they change his life for the better.
It’s a feel-good cliche that is so common that Waititi could basically color by numbers, and yet Next Goal Wins is a scribbled mess.
Next Goal Wins cheats its teammates.
A solid strategy for creating a compelling and heart-warming sports comedy is to build a team full of colorful and compelling characters. Because some sports have a bunch of players, leaning on archetypes can be useful, be it the tough kid, the oddball, the goons, or the girl (who is good at sports!).
Unfortunately, Waititi fails to develop most of the American Samoan players beyond establishing their names. For instance, a forgiving cop with a killer kick is introduced as Detective Rambo — which seems a promising start. But he’ll get no arc or noteworthy beat beyond his introduction. The same goes for much of the team. Rather than distinctive personalities they become interchangeable stooges for coach Thomas Rongen to scowl at. Well, except for Jaiyah (Kaimana). She becomes a teachable moment to show us how much Thomas has grown. (Groan.)
Credit: Searchlight Pictures
Next Goal Wins plays with transphobia, and it sucks.
In real life, Jaiyah Saelua made history as a groundbreaking trans athlete. In the film, it is explained that she is fa’afafine, an American Samoan term for a gender outside of the binary of male or female. Lovingly, she is compared to a flower by the team’s manager (Oscar Kightley, who is a ray of warming radiant sunshine in every frame). But to Rongen, she is to be mocked for her appearance, her long hair, and her name. To bully her into obeying him, he deadnames Jaiyah in front of her teammates. Later, when they sit down for a heart-to-heart, he asks her about her genitals. As if what’s in her pants is relevant to their relationship or her skills on the field.
Rongen’s bad behavior toward Jaiyah is not condoned in the film, but rather set up to show us his gruff nature and where he could specifically grow in understanding. A parallel develops between him becoming paternally protective of Jaiyah while seemingly failing his own daughter, who appears only in vexed voicemails. However, the casual transphobia of the film’s protagonist doesn’t play as hapless ignorance. It’s aggressive and crude. Sure, the film is set in 2011, but it’s coming out in 2023 when trans people are under attack in horrifying numbers. So, plopping such popular transphobe talking points into a mainstream movie, and then making a non-binary actor (the elegant and charming Kaimana) have to graciously educate a bully on her right to exist fails in Waititi’s aims to make a feel-good movie. It forces the film’s most enchanting performer into a cruel compromise just to be seen.
Credit: Searchlight Pictures
Next Goal Wins just isn’t funny.
It has its moments to be sure. As I mentioned, Kightley is a delight, whether he is chipperly delivering meaningful metaphors on a literal platter or delivering a pep talk while he’s got “lady boobs” scribbled on his face in permanent marker. Likewise, Rachel House — who was a standout as the Terminator-like social services worker in Hunt For The Wilderpeople — is a reliable hoot, though she is given little to do beyond chucking shoes and pandering to the gullible white dude. But Michael Fassbender as the film’s center is weirdly miscast.
In movies like Inglorious Basterds, Prometheus, and even his X-Men movies, the intense actor has managed a wry or snarling wit. But he’s not really funny. Walking in the footsteps of films like Cool Runnings and its ilk, Next Goal Wins needs a lead actor who can play a guffaw-sparking curmudgeon, like John Candy or Walter Matthau or even Woody Harrelson in Hunger Games. Instead, Fassbender delivers punchlines with no punch. And so he can’t score laughs, even in scenes with comedians like Will Arnett and (recurring Waititi collaborator) Rhys Darby.
Worse yet, Waititi, who appears in a small role as narrator and pastor, is unfunny here, and shockingly so. Not only does it feel like he’s leaning back into the schtick he rolled out in a similar role in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but also he’s slapped on a silly long mustache and big fake teeth making the character into a caricature reminiscent of Rob Schneider. And if your sports comedy is coming off less Bad News Bears and more The Water Boy, well, that’s not a goal.
Though Next Goal Wins aims for silly and feel-good, it wildly misses the mark. Taika Waititi undercuts his ensemble by reducing most of them to barely there roles. He dabbles in transphobia to lazily construct a grump-to-good-guy arc, which is not only ugly but also a disservice to Jaiyah Saelua and Kaimana. From casting his leading man to constructing this narrative, the film feels frustratingly clumsy and frankly half-assed. So in the end, it’s hard to walk away with warm and fuzzies, because this movie is just too fuzzy to hit us in the heart.
Next Goal Wins was reviewed out of its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. The movie opens in theaters Nov. 17.