Writer/director Taika Waititi’s comedic style has made him an established name in the genre. It’s how he rejuvenated Thor from being a bottom-tier MCU franchise and in his Oscar-winning film Jojo Rabbit he gave a depiction of Adolf Hitler that audiences found themselves actually laughing at.
But in 2022, Thor: Love and Thunder was the first sign of what happens when Waititi’s brand of comedy is forced to carry the load – and it wasn’t great. Now, Next Goal Wins shows what happens when his humor serves as the backbone of a film and ultimately becomes its greatest undoing.
The film – based on the 2014 documentary of the same name by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison – follows controversial professional soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) as he heads to American Samoa to coach their team. While this new position might seem exciting to most, it’s a nightmare for Rongen – who only took this job to avoid being ousted by the league for his obnoxious sideline tantrums. The American Samoa team is known as the worst professional team in the world – notably suffering the worst loss in the sport’s professional history when they were crushed by Australia 31-0. However, Rongen has all the expertise and drive to turn them around and unexpectedly finds ways to better himself through the bond that develops between him and the team.
Overall, there are only a couple instances where Waititi’s comedy works. The first is with Fassbender – who utilizes his intense on-screen persona excellently for this highly enjoyable comedic turn. He works perfectly with Waititi’s comedic direction and excellently uses Rognen’s tense vigor and selfishness to create hilarious reactions. His comedic timing and sheer commitment to Waititi’s outlandish vision honestly makes you wish Fassbender would work more in the genre – or at least work with Waititi again. The other comedic bright spots are some running gags with different team members and some storytelling choices for the climactic final game. Other than that, the film’s comedy becomes stale quickly because it features traits of Waititi’s vision that have grown tiresome.
Generally, Next Goal Wins displays a bizarre kookiness that’s hard to perceive as anything but strange and confusing. There are ridiculous characters and situations that solely exist to evoke laughs but end up being perplexing and over the top in uninteresting ways. For instance, Waititi’s own character – a preacher that’s basically a live-action cartoon – sticks out terribly and tries way too hard to be funny. It’s probably one of his worst comedic performances yet and embodies how overstated he feels in this film. There are also scenes of characters doing weird things or having odd interactions that feel totally forced and rarely pay off in laughs. Sometimes they’re literally acting strange towards Rongen just so he feels out of place, and it makes most of the American Samoa characters unnecessarily silly.
Even worse, is that Waititi’s comedy taking a larger role makes the film’s depiction of American Samoan characters and culture feel hollow. Although the film presents a lot of intriguing story potential with American Samoa, it capitalizes on none of it in a meaningful way. The presence of a trans player named Jaiyah (Kaimana) constantly shows strong potential to delve into a timely and emotionally strong sports perspective. There are moments where Jaiyah’s story can express real emotion and personal hardships that reflect her being personally pulled in two directions. Not to mention, the dynamic between Fassbender and Kaimana on-screen is so likable and good-hearted. Unfortunately, her character is usually played for laughs and used as a subtle stepping stone for Rongen’s own issues. So, the more compelling yet underlying impact of her story isn’t given the time or effort to the extent it deserves.>
There’s also a lack of care towards depicting American Samoa culture and characters with any real depth that doesn’t go unnoticed. For a film where the main concept is to take a conflicted person and bring them into a world unlike their own, it doesn’t really dig into what that world is about. There are surface-level aspects of diligent religious practices and the personal beliefs about living that can be seen, but they’re just used for comedic frustration for Rongen. They’re just shown to slowly get Rongen upset and there’s never a moment that highlights the actual importance of these things to American Samoa outside of generic dialogue. It’s something that drastically holds Next Goal Wins back creating shallow portrayals that only serve the comedy and nothing more. Most of the characters aren’t even given names, distinct personalities, or stories that make them stand apart and it just feels like the film doesn’t know or care about what makes this story special.
Instead, it just wants to focus on filling the story with underdog sports cliches that only add to the film’s flailing humor. Despite the film’s attempts to thinly poke fun at elements of this genre, it relies too heavily on tropes to get by. The whole idea of a hard-headed person trying to corral and command this group of more positive-minded people who lack foundation and structure in the sport has been done to death. Seriously, just replace the American Samoa characters with a group of down on their luck high-school students and you basically have the same type of sports story here. Even the highlights of the team’s history and value of a dramatic, heart-tugging turn in Rongen’s own personal issues right before the final game aren’t strong enough to really differentiate from any other sports film like it. Audiences might still be able to find something to love about this underdog squad pushing past their doubters and detractors. But Next Goal Wins is just another typical offering to this genre without any of the depth or uniqueness in its story to set it apart.
Next Goal Wins doesn’t say that Waititi’s comedy has completely lost its luster thanks to some jokes that work and Fassbender’s hilarious performance. But it’s not strong enough to hold up the entire film and ends up dragging down the character depictions, formulaic sports story, and overall experience because Waititi doesn’t show a comedic range outside of his usual antics – which are starting to see their magic fade.