There are few filmmakers who have had such a drastic fall from grace like Taika Waititi. He emerged as an exciting new indie filmmaker in the late 2000s, before making a huge splash with his breakthrough film What We Do in the Shadows, which he co-directed with frequent collaborator Jemaine Clement. He then experienced further critical and commercial success with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok, and Jojo Rabbit. He would then go on to win the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, and it is at this point that the court of public opinion began to turn against him. Many took issue with the film itself, due to its portrayal of Nazi Germany and the inclusion of a buffoonish Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi himself. In the years since, more people have grown weary of Waititi's quirky persona, and his follow-up film, Thor: Love and Thunder, garnered some of the harshest critical reviews of his career. With his latest film, Next Goal Wins, Waititi has a lot to prove, as this is his first non-Marvel film since he won the Oscar. One might hope that this film could be more of a return to form for Waititi, but that's simply not the case here. Next Goal Wins is an absolute mess, with an uneven tone, lazy script, and lack of focus absolutely tanking the film, and marking a career low for Taika Waititi.
In 2011, The American Samoa football team is considered to be one of the worst association teams in the world. After a disastrous match in the World Cup qualifiers saw them lose 31-0 to Australia in 2001, the team has not even scored one single goal in competitive play. Meanwhile, Coach Thomas Rongren (Michael Fassbender) is on the verge of being fired. He is given one last chance to save his job if he can turn the American Samoa team around, and lead them to victory. Rongren reluctantly accepts, and finds that he has his work cut out for him. Despite this, he puts his all into turning this ragtag group of footballers into a winning team, or at least score a single goal for once.
It isn't that hard to make a crowd-pleasing sports movie, but Taika Waititi manages to take the inspirational story of the American Samoa football team and fumbles it entirely. I knew we were in trouble from the first moments of the film, where Waititi himself enters as a priest, and begins to provide exposition, and adds a wink-wink line about embellishing the truth of the story. He then disappears for much of the film, and has maybe one or two voiceovers beyond this first scene. This character is so distracting and has no bearing on the actual film. It feels like Waititi just couldn't bear the thought of not appearing on screen in his own film, and just made a flimsy excuse to do so. This aspect alone sums up one of my main issues with the film: the tone is all over the place. It tries to cram Waititi's brand of humor with traditional sports movie tropes with dashes of melodrama and social commentary for good measure. It becomes clear very quick that the film has bit off more than it can chew, and it is just so all over the place that I never felt settled into it. It became hard to connect with the story or the characters in more than a surface level way, and this really frustrated me. Waititi's direction is so lazy and unfocused that it felt like he didn't really care about this film at all, and if he doesn't care, then why should we as an audience?
His script isn't much better, as the changes he makes to the story and its characters are questionable at best. The most obvious of these is how it depicts Jaiyah Saelua, the first transgender player to compete in a World Cup match. Saelua identifies as fa'afafine, a third gender in Samoan culture who were assigned male at birth, but embody feminine and masculine characteristics. The film at least casts a non-binary actor in the role, but it also features scenes in which the character is purposely deadnamed and antagonized by Rongren, neither of which actually happened. I understand wanting to show the adversity that trans athletes face, but making a character transphobic when their real life counterpart was reportedly not is certainly a choice. It at least features a scene late into the film in which Saelua and Rongren have a heartfelt discussion about her identity and how she feels stuck between being her true self and a version of herself that fits in better with the team. To me, this is so much more powerful than the moments where the character is being bullied, and it has so much to say on the topic of trans athletes.
Beyond that, the film also tries to dig into Rongren's alcoholism and personal trauma, both of which are handled as superficially as possible, with the latter feeling like a bit of an afterthought in the grand scheme of things. I'd also argue that it struggles with the character of Rongren, as the film wants him to be a lovable jerk, but he is so much of a jerk that it is hard to sympathize with him at certain points. Even in his more redemptive moments, I had a hard time fully getting on board with the character. In the scenes where you do feel for him, he still feels like he's at arms length, which feels so antithetical to the film's larger themes of community and acceptance. I might feel different if the film centered more on the football team and less on Rongren, but he is the true main character of the film, so the fact that he is quite abrasive gets in the way of the film's overarching goals (no pun intended).
It doesn't help that the film bounces around story-wise, and feels more like a hodge-podge of characters and events. Rongren's section is perhaps the most stable, but the American Samoa players get pushed to the side a bit. Saelua is the only one who really gets time to shine, as the rest of the team is just kind of there. They try to include a small arc about Nicky Salapu, a real-life player who still plays for American Samoa, but it is so minimized compared to anything else in the film. It's as if the film isn't fully sure how to marry Rongren's storyline with the team's storyline, even though plenty of films have done this sort of thing many times before with great ease. This is what is so confounding about the film, as it could have easily taken the basic formula of most sports movies and use that as a jumping off point to allow for Waititi's style to mesh with it a little better. But the film is just a total mess, and comes across as irritating more than anything. It doesn't help that the film's comedy is poor across the board (a bit involving Al Pacino's "inch-by-inch" speech is one of the most unfunny things I've seen all year) and that the more emotional moments mostly feel forced. It's such a tonal disaster that I got whiplash from how it jumps between its more serious moments to its goofier ones, leading the film to feel so scatterbrained that it isn't very fun to watch.
At least it has its cast to fall back on, which is made up of people who honestly are a bit overqualified for a film like this. Michael Fassbender is good, and makes the material he's given work to a certain extent. He's a bit vacant, but that seems to be by design. He's a bit weird when it comes to the film's comedic moments, but he's perfectly fine otherwise. Elisabeth Moss is good as well, but she is confusingly relegated to playing the thankless role of Fassbender's ex-wife. Moss is one of our most dynamic actors working today, so to cast her in such a bland role as this one serves very little purpose. Will Arnett makes his few scenes count, but it's also kind of a thankless role for him. He makes the most of it, but it feels like he's a bit misused overall. The real star of the film, however, is Kaimana, who plays Jaiyah Saelua. This is their first film role ever, and they absolutely nail it. Kaimana brings some much needed humanity to the film as their performance is one of the few that I was able to connect with. The way they play Saelua allows the character to feel fully formed, and they capture both the confidence and insecurity of her so well. Kaimana's work here is an excellent surprise, and is one of the few things I genuinely liked about the film.
Next Goal Wins is all over the place, and is more annoying than anything else. The things that it tries (and fails) to do are things that Taika Waititi should have no problem pulling off, but he gives such a half-hearted effort that it causes the film to implode on itself. The comedy is weak, the dramatic moments feel forced, and it feels a bit misguided in how it handling topics such and trans athletes in sports and alcoholism. It is an absolute mess that could have easily been so much better, and would have benefitted from having anyone beside Taika Waititi behind it. This is undoubtedly my least favorite film of his, and one of the biggest disappointments of the year for me. I always felt like Waititi got a little too much hate from his more vocal critics, but after watching Next Goal Wins, I'm beginning to see where they're coming from.