Monday, March 4, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Next Goal Wins’ is Another Shallow Sports Cliche

Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Taikia Waititi, and Iain Morris
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Elisabeth Moss

Synopsis: The story of the infamously terrible American Samoa soccer team, known for a brutal 2001 FIFA match they lost 31-0.

There are few words to describe what a tedious and manipulative experience Next Goal Wins really is, but I’ll try to write about 500 to 600 words on the subject. The new Taika Waititi proves one fact about the mercurial director behind films such as Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), and Jojo Rabbit: Too much Waititi can be bad for you because the director tries to pass off limited talent with heart. If only he had brought enough heart to the filmmaking process to even out the sentimental cartoonishness of the final product.

Written by Waititi and Iain Morris and based on the documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins follows real-life figure Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), a soccer coach who was MLS Coach of the Year in the league’s inaugural season in 1996. However, Rongen fell on hard times after a blissful welcome into the head manager profession. He is letting go of coaching the United States national team. Suddenly, Rongen finds himself with nowhere to go until his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) and the member of the board (Will Arnett) pull some strings.

Rognen is given the keys to the manager position of American Samoa, a plucky bunch who are not so much soccer hooligans as they are roligans of the world’s most popular sport. The players are calm and friendly and always look at shortcomings or obstacles through a positive lens. Even though the team has only one single game in international play, they are ranked dead last in the world rankings, and in the last tournament game they participated in, they lost 31-0 to Australia.

Some of the cast can be likable, particularly New Zealand comedian Oscar Kightley, but the writing is so shallow, and one note hardly matters. Knightly plays Tavita, the executive of the Samoa team, who also runs a restaurant and is the camera operator of the island’s most popular reality show, “Why’d You Come Here?” His attitude can be infectious, and it’s meant to balance out Fassbender’s toxic coach’s antics. The problem is that the character needed to be more Bad News Bears Coach Buttermaker to equal out all that positivity.

Many are pointing out Next Goal Wins’s faults in Ted Lasso’s success. Imagine a cynical bunch of cinephiles so angry about a trend of positivity in film and television that it becomes a turn-off. However, that’s not the problem with Waititi’s film. The fact is, the movie has nothing new to offer other than the typical cliche-filled sports picture.

A much more interesting (and even fascinating) part of the story is Jaiyah Saelua (played wonderfully by Kaimana). They are an American Samoan footballer who was the first non-binary transgender athlete to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match. Kaimana and Fassbender have a natural rapport, mainly when Kaimana can convey the experiences, struggles, and challenges an athlete like this will deal with internally. Unfortunately, nothing is said about the external biases they must have faced.

You may argue that Next Goal Wins brings a time-tested and tested winning formula back to cinemas that shouldn’t be tinkered with. The problem with that ideology, like any success, is that it can be copied and repeated over time until it loses its effectiveness. Waititis’s film is a shell of that concept by playing it too safe and only offering surface-level insight into characters hardly ever examined in film or television. 

Instead of offering this course correction, Next Goal Wins drives down the middle of middling. A film is hardly zany or wacky enough to be funny, mature, and honest enough to get the audience to care. 

Grade: C-

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