American Samoa’s Scrappy Team Stars in Taika Waititi’s Shaggy Soccer Comedy
DIRECTOR: TAIKA WAITITI/2023
When you lose 31-0 on a global stage, it stays with you.
A decade after that FIFA slaughter, the American Samoa team still has yet to score a goal in competition. Also on a losing streak: coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender). After a rough season with the U.S. men’s team, he’s out of a job and his marriage (with Elisabeth Moss) is crumbling. With no other options, he might as well head to American Samoa! Football Federation American Samoa head Tavita (Oscar Kightley) hires Rongen hoping new blood will help the national team achieve its low but elusive goal: scoring one goal in a competitive match of any kind.
Next Goal Wins reminds me of a ‘70s haircut: winsome, but ultimately thin and shaggy. Writer/director Taiki Waititi’s arguably most straight-down-the-middle project in years references Any Given Sunday and The Karate Kid as inspirations, and when it leans into comedy, it’s as fun as either of those modern classics. Though Fassbender isn’t known for his humor (see The Killer for his more familiar brand of action and brooding—he’s having quite the month!), he’s game for this story’s silliness. The real laughs come courtesy of supporting players like Will Arnett (with only a few more IQ points than Gob Bluth) and Kightley, whose dry delivery is so pitch perfect I hope this becomes his breakout role. The team’s practice is hilariously awful, there’s a scene about the five stages of grief I expect will be an Internet meme soon, and a series of clever bits poke fun at genre movie tropes. On a scene-to-scene basis, Next Goal Wins works well, but it struggles to hang together as a whole. Those jokes don’t pay off in a way you’d expect (no rule of threes here!), and they don’t reveal much more about our characters. (In the moment, the references to The Matrix and Taken are funny, but wow, are they random.) Waititi appears onscreen as a priest, but his character adds so little, it seems he’s only there because Waititi seems to have boundless energy reserves.
To be fair, few characters fare better. Fassbender can sell a dramatic turn, but it always comes when we reach the appropriate timecode for a by-the-numbers sports movie, not because such character development is earned. As for secondary characters, only one teammate finds sufficient screen time for an arc, transgender woman Jaiyah (Kaimana). Beulah Koale as Kightley’s frustrated son shows shades of one early on, but it’s quickly dropped, and Uli Latukefu’s haunted goalie disappears for too long to carry any emotional weight. This story’s sentimentality is predictable and on the nose, and the emotional moments last so long the joke rate suffers. Then, all of a sudden, the credits are rolling. Perhaps this movie’s all-over-the-place feeling is a result of a challenging production, but no matter the reason, it’s underwhelming when you know Waititi is capable of so much more, including pulling off a hysterical and moving Hitler comedy. Next Goal Wins has some laughs in its 103 minutes, but it it’s no galactico.