‘Next Goal Wins’ Review: Extremely OK Sports Comedy Slightly Improved by Solid Taika Waititi Jokes
The Big Picture
- Next Goal Wins is an okay sports film that follows a familiar formula, lacking the genre-defying creativity seen in Taika Waititi’s previous works.
- Waititi’s signature sense of humor shines through in the film, but it falls short in terms of expected sports movie tropes and building anticipation for the big game.
- The standout performances come from Oscar Kightley as Tavita and Jaiyah Saelua as Kaimana, with the rest of the cast feeling underutilized, including Michael Fassbender and Elisabeth Moss. Overall, the film is average and fails to surpass expectations set by Waititi’s past successes.
This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.
The journey for Taika Waititi’s latest film, Next Goal Wins, has been a long and strange one. It had originally wrapped back in early 2020—before Waititi began production on last year’s Thor: Love and Thunder—and after Armie Hammer faced a variety of serious accusations with his part being replaced and expanded by Will Arnett. Following delays, reshoots, and nearly four years after it wrapped filming, Next Goal Wins has finally premiered, and the long-gestated movie is…an extremely okay sports film, accented by some quality Waititi jokes, but still doesn’t hit as hard as some of his best work can.
Next Goal Wins
- Release Date
- November 17, 2023
- Taika Waititi
- Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane
- 97 minutes
- Main Genre
- Comedy, Drama, Sports
- Taika Waititi, Iain Morris
Next Goal Wins follows the same story as the 2014 documentary of the same name about Dutch-American football coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who is sent to train the American Samoa team, known as one of the worst teams in the world. They were on the bad end of the biggest defeat in football history, losing 31-0, and a decade later, the team has still never won a game, or even scored a single goal. While Rongen is out of his element with such poor players, he becomes dedicated to getting the team to score that elusive goal, and maybe improve this hopeless cause as much as he can.
‘Next Goal Wins’ Is a Sports Movie the Likes of Which We’ve Seen Before
As a sports comedy, Next Goal Wins is fairly by-the-numbers, packed with training montages, bringing in new promising players, and inspirational speeches (even Rongen’s biggest speeches are borrowed from Taken and Any Given Sunday). Basically, take The Mighty Ducks, put them on a soccer field, and move them to American Samoa, and you’ve got essentially the same story. It’s not bad, but considering how Waititi has shaken up genres before, whether it’s exploring the rom-com in Eagle vs. Shark, a witty take on the mockumentary in What We Do in the Shadows, or even finding a new angle on the historical horror of the Holocaust with Jojo Rabbit, it’s kind of a shame that Waititi isn’t able to do this as well with Next Goal Wins.
Yet even with his worst films (I’m looking at you again, Thor: Love and Thunder), Waititi is always able to scrounge up some laughs, and, thankfully, Next Goal Wins does have Waititi’s signature sense of humor. Rongen moving to American Samoa is a great way for Waititi—along with co-writer Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners, Flight of the Conchords)—to play with the culture shock of this usually-drunk man and his uncertainty over his new position. Yet beyond the humor, Next Goal Wins still leaves much to be desired, especially since some of the expected sports movie tropes, like watching the team get better (even if it’s incrementally) or building the anticipation for the big game, are all oddly missing here.
The Team Is the Real Winner in ‘Next Goal Wins’
But it’s particularly the delivery of these Waititi lines that really sells them, and while Next Goal Wins does have a solid cast surrounding the team, it’s the players themselves that are the real stars here. Playing what seems like the Waititi role (although he does make a few appearances as a goofy American Samoan priest) is Oscar Kightley as Tavita, the head of the Football Federation American Samoa, who only asks for one goal—which he asks for over and over. Kightley is hilarious at delivering Waititi and Morris’ dialogue with just the right inflection and cadence, and Next Goal Wins simply wouldn’t be the same without him.
The beating heart, however, of Next Goal Wins is Kaimana as Jaiyah Saelua, a transgender woman who is also one of the most promising players and the biggest help to Rongen. While the rest of the team are mostly known for some one-note joke or gag about their playing (one player can’t quit sliding and another is known as football’s D’Angelo because of his ripped body), Jaiyah is one of the rare characters who gets a well-rounded arc and is one of the few players who stands out among the team. Next Goal Wins never quite finds the heart that often makes Waititi’s films so powerful, but the closest it comes is in Kaimana’s performance.
Unfortunately, some of the cast’s biggest hitters are sort of wasted. It’s great to see Michael Fassbender back on the screen as, believe it or not, he hasn’t had a film since 2019’s Dark Phoenix. Fassbender rarely gets an opportunity to do comedy and he holds his own just fine here. But as a character says in the third act, the team never really gets to know Rongen and the same is true for the audience. We know the bare bones of who he is, that he’s a failed coach and that his marriage has fallen apart, but it’s not until near the end of the film where we finally get to know who this man is. That final act does a lot of heavy lifting for Rongen, and Fassbender plays it well, but it’s hard to believe this film wouldn’t improve if we didn’t get a better glimpse into his past before near the end.
Speaking of the bigger-name actors in Next Goal Wins, they all similarly become little more than window dressing for this story. Arnett is playing a toned-down version of the sleazebag we still sort of love, but he’s not meant to do much more than be an obstacle between Rongen and his dreams. Similarly, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Rongen’s estranged wife Gail, is little more than an object of Rongen’s affection that he hopes he can win back—but that part of the story is mostly forgotten as the film goes on.
But even though Waititi’s sense of humor still comes through at times—particularly from the team and their oddball coach—this can’t help but feel like a watered-down Waititi. It’s certainly easy to see why that’s the case, as Next Goal Wins has been in the works for years, and since Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi has been spreading himself thin, between working on upcoming projects and producing. And while that’s led to some excellent things, like Our Flag Means Death and Reservation Dogs, Next Goal Wins shows that he might be taking on too much. One can’t help but imagine that Next Goal Wins would’ve been much more effective in the earlier days of Waititi’s career, released alongside films like What We Do in the Shadows or Hunt for the Wilderpeople. With many projects in the future, including a Time Bandits miniseries, and a Star Wars film in the works, it’s great that Waititi will still take the time to make a smaller, light comedy like this, but it also doesn’t feel like Waititi at his best.
Waititi’s latest isn’t bad by any stretch, and isn’t close to his worst (again, Love and Thunder, watch your ass), but as a sports film and a comedy, it is fairly average. Which, let’s be fair, with uplifting sports movies, who’s truly looking for a film that shakes things up and breaks the mold? And if that’s the cup of tea you want to try, Next Goal Wins will likely hit the spot at least occasionally. But considering this was the film made by Waititi after winning the Oscar for Jojo Rabbit, Next Goal Wins too often feels more like a penalty than a score.
Next Goal Wins is in theaters in the U.S. now. Click here for showtimes near you.