Taika Waititi’s unique brand of humor has elevated him from relative obscurity to directing a pair of hit Marvel films, becoming a popular favorite in the process, and winning an Oscar for his hilarious and poignant WWII film, Jojo Rabbit. It’s still fair to say that Waititi…well, he ain’t for everybody. But his skills at finding humor in the underdog story are unquestionable, and put to pretty good use with soccer comedy Next Goal Wins. The long-delayed film is Waititi’s Cool Runnings set on grass, and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser that scores with the director’s legion of fans, despite the yellow flags it also earns.
Based on the 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins is led by comedy giant, Michael Fassbender, as real-life soccer coach Thomas Rongen. The film chronicles Rongen’s fall from grace to being hired to coach the dreadful American Samoa squad, which suffered the worst World Cup loss of all-time. The 31-0 drubbing at the speedy feet of the Australia team in 2001 was just the tip of the iceberg. The Samoans had NEVER scored a goal ever, and it didn’t look like they ever would. Enter Rongen, whose life is a total misery but takes this job to turn the Samoan team around. Not necessarily to win and enter the World Cup or anything, just to score “one goal” as Rongen is frequently told by Tavita (an excellent Oscar Kightley), head of the soccer team and island cheerleader.
You get a sense of the tone immediately, with the first face you see being that of Waititi himself as a priest discussing the story’s authenticity. I admit that normally this would be worrying, as Waititi occasionally overestimates his comic worth as an actor (see also Thor: Love & Thunder), but he’s used sparingly here. And fortunately, Fassbender’s shoulders aren’t relied upon to carry the comedic weight. As good of a dramatic actor as he is, Fassbender isn’t particularly funny and one could even say he’s miscast here. Someone like Gerard Butler would probably have fit better. Or perhaps co-star Will Arnett, who plays Alex, a smarmy soccer official in a role originally written for Armie Hammer. There’s a subplot involving Thomas and his soon-to-be ex-wife Gail, played by an underutilized Elisabeth Moss, who seems to want to move on but make sure Thomas gets his life back on track.
Next Goal Wins is an unexpectedly complicated movie. The story is pretty basic on a fundamental level. You know where the beats are long before they actually arrive. Thomas is a fish out of water who struggles to connect with the Samoan heritage and thus the players he’s meant to coach. They make fun of him being the White outsider, he has a troubled past and anger management issues. Eventually, he learns to get over himself and the team responds with a rousing moment of togetherness, which leads to immediate success. Boom. Waititi does all of this with a winking eye towards loads of other projects with a similar theme; from The Karate Kid to Any Given Sunday to the obvious Cool Runnings and even Ted Lasso. Waititi, along with co-writer Iain Morris, lean hard on the laughs and the jokes practically write themselves. Frequent displays of hard work and heart help endear us to the team as a whole, since the individual members are barely sketched out at all. We still laugh hard when their shots go wildly awry as if there’s a forcefield surrounding the goal.
The problem is the comedy also undermines the emotional heft of Rongen’s accomplishment and that of American Samoa. This is especially true in the storyline involving Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), the team’s fa’afafine/non-binary player who was struggling with her identity throughout. Jaiyah, who is beloved by her teammates but faces prejudice from others, grapples with a transition that will prevent her from playing the sport she loves, while also dealing with Thomas’ explosive anger. Of course, the two will eventually find themselves on equal footing, and while this entire thread could’ve done with more fleshing out, Kaimana is excellent in the role and it also affords Fassbender something with a bit of dramatic weight to it. It’s no surprise that he’s most comfortable in these scenes, and later when it’s revealed a tragedy in Thomas’ past that has been holding him back for so long.
What’s funny about the finale is how invested it gets us to be in a game with such low stakes. Going from awful to just merely bad is all that is expected out of American Samoa, but still we can’t help but cheer them on in their efforts to score. Waititi makes some curious but successful editing choices here, including a total change of perspective that adds a fairy tale quality to this real-life fairy tale story. Next Goal Wins doesn’t always hit its shots but knows how to win when it counts.
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters on November 17th.