Plagued with anger, embarrassment, and the inability to coach a team to the World Cup, Dutch American soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) is given the ultimatum of being fired from his position as a FIFA soccer coach or embarking on the challenging task of coaching the American Samoa national team, which has been ranked dead last in the FIFA world rankings for 10 years straight for not only losing very poorly but for being incapable of even scoring one goal. The film has large cast actors playing the team members, and there is a sincere amount of screentime given to team Captain Jiayah Saejua (Kaimana), who was the very first transgender athlete to compete in a World Cup soccer game.
The others, of course, are given some amusing moments, and if co-writer and director Taika Waititi’s adaptation of the 2014 British documentary of the same title often fails to avoid many other underdog sports movie cliches as expected, Never quite reaching the offbeat vibe that it aims for, Waititi pulls off some functional scenes inside a story that is confined to many broad cliches. While Next Goal Wins flourishes most with the exchanges between Fassbender and newcomer Kaimana, the rest of their emotional depth is left underwritten, as Waititi’s potential to dig deeper into these characters psyche sadly misfires as other amounts of screentime are given to other one-dimensional characters and caricatures that fail to add much humor or layers to the narrative. The end result is a film that feels like a hodgepodge of many different movie rolled into in one, which ends up feeling uneven.
Courtesy Fox Searchlight
We have seen the story before in such films as Slapshot, The Bad News Bears, Hoosiers, The Mighty Ducks, and the recent Champions about a troubled coach reluctantly or unwillingly coaching a jumbled team of athletes that have potential but lack the proper inspiration or understanding of their skills. While Waititi has helmed many offbeat and amusing films before, it’s quite surprising that he takes such a pedestrian approach here.
As for casting, much has already been stated about how Fassbender is miscast here as the coach, but I don’t think the role is meant to be comedic. Fassbender’s performance is certainly disheveled and depressed. He has a hot temper and gravitates towards alcohol to sooth his anxieties. He is separated from his wife Gail (Elizabeth Moss), a FIFA boar member who is in a relationship with fellow board member Alex (Will Arnet), who tells Thomas bad stories involving his old pet dogs that are used as metaphors. The relationship between Thomas and his estranged Gail is also left very slight and becomes another missed opportunity for Waitaki and his fellow comedian co-writer, Iain Morris. You can sense Thomas still longs for her, but there is never a scene where they really get to reflect, opine, or pontificate on the wounds of their marriage and why it didn’t work. It is saved during a locker room speech in the third act, and we get glimpses that grief pulled them apart, but their exchanges never ignite or get the satisfying payoff that it builds for. This can be because Fassbender and Moss aren’t given much in the writing room or even proper direction to bring emotional invention to their flawed characters.
Courtesy Fox Searchlight
While there are cleverly comical montages here and some belly laughs here and there, the biggest letdown is the payoff of Jiaya. Her story is unique on its own and could certainly be a movie of its own. The performance and chemistry between newcomer Kaimana and Fassbender are the highlights of the film, but sadly, her personal struggles and issues are left sidelined to fictionalized tension and arcs that benefit Fassbender, who continues to deadname her, which leads to a heated moment during a practice. Eventually the two make amends, and Fassbender’s character ends up encouraging her more in some very poignant moments, but even the narratives attempt at something since doesn’t quite reach the evenhanded payoff it reaches for as it becomes more about Rongen’s redemption. While there are some other saving graces with the Indigenous supporting cast, led by a very amusing Oscar Knightley as Tavita, the team owner who holds multiple shows as the camera operator for his own American Soma TV channel in which also owns and manages a seafood restaurant. He’s quite amusing but like most of the characters in the film they are left underwritten too. Or if they are given screentime, it is dedicated to pop culture movie jokes that fall flat, involving Taken and The Matrix or calling out Rongen’s bluff as he uses rehashed speeches from Any Given Sunday.
Filmed in Hawaii to pass as American Samoa, Waititi fails to do anything visually interesting with the locales. Even the soccer sequences aren’t staged or edited that well. We get some scenes of mountains and water, but even the visual style in those scenes disappoints. While the whole saga of how the American Samoa transformed themselves from a losing team to a winning one is rather remarkable on its own. It has all the makings of being rather an engaging underdog story, but sadly, this version is not. If you missed the 2014 documentary of the same name the first time around, this one might be worth watching just for Kaimana’s performance and her portrayal of Jaiyah Saelua; otherwise, it’s just another played-out sports movie that didn’t have to become one.
Next Goal Wins opens in theaters Friday, November 16th.