How far the once bright star of Taika Waititi has fallen. Just a few years ago, Waititi was amongst the freshest new voices in the industry, having cut his teeth with heartfelt and genuinely endearing comedies like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, as well as the sleeper vampire-comedy banger What We Do in the Shadows. His pivot to more commercial enterprises saw him direct a Marvel fan favorite in Thor: Ragnarok and earn a number of Oscar nominees for his Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit. His last few projects have been…less appealing. His return to the MCU with the fourth Thor film, Love and Thunder, was a true misfire, an early indication that the once-never-miss studio was on truly shaky ground, and his latest film, a half baked underdog sports drama once thought to have awards considerations, Next Goal Wins, has garnered the New Zealand native the worst reviews of his career. 

That’s not to say that Waititi is cooked. In fact, on the small screen, he seems to have hit a bit of an apex. His hysterical television adaptation of What We Do in the Shadows was renewed for an impressive six seasons; Our Flag Means Death has earned critical acclaim and a devout fan following; and Reservation Dogs just capped its third season (and series) with a rabid – if small – gang of admirers. Waititi clearly has the goods, and when he employs them successfully and pours thought and effort into his projects, the results are truly special. However, when he delivers something as slapdash and cliché-ridden as Next Goal Wins, it reveals a creator buckling under his own aspirations,  either the result of being spread too thin or simple on-the-job hackery.

In Waititi’s swing and a miss of a sports comedy, a heavy-drinking down-on-his-luck coach played by Michael Fassbender is forced to American Samoa to coach the worst soccer team in the world. Having lost an international game in a record-breaking 31-0 game, the American Samoa football team is the laughingstock of the entire world and Fassender’s Coach Rongen doesn’t fare much better. He’s a washed-up drunk, separated from his wife (Elizabeth Moss), and quick to a temper tantrum on or off the field. He hopes to inspire his new team by publicly dressing them down or by deadnaming his trans team captain Jaiyah (Kaimana). Shockingly, his methods don’t work. What follows is a loosely-cobbled together collection of underdog sports clichés impersonating a plot, slathered around underdeveloped characters, and lacking any kind of point.

The script from Waititi and Iain Morris (The Inbetweeners) is bad by virtue of its lack of anything resembling depth or specificity or originality – and that’s to say nothing of it’s reckless disregard for basic storytelling principals – but it’s done no favors by Waititi’s truly disdainful direction. His grasp on the comedic elements is just off here – I don’t think I laughed once. This is a truly unfunny film, sometimes simply because of how hard its trying to get a cheap giggle. Worse still, Waititi treats nearly every dramatic beat with a shrug and a smugness that is both unamusing and off-putting. There’s a lack of consideration and care here that extends to both the film’s ostensible inclusiveness and its tenuous grasp on the the sport at its center that makes the whole thing just seem so lazy and even offensive. Worst still, the movie is edited to within an inch of its life, scraping along the surface without ever finding a foothold in anything meaningful with Waititi’s inability to take anything seriously verging on self-parody.

There are small elements to appreciate though. Fassbender shines when he’s given the chance to actually give a hoot. Kaimana lights up the screen as Jaiyah, the first openly trans woman to compete in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier and the film’s closest thing to a beating heart. The largely Samoan ensemble cast lend a sense of warmth and humanity to a film mostly content with empty gestures towards such ideals. But herein lies the problem: Waititi’s film suggests that half-baked stereotypes of a country, its people, and its culture are enough to cobble together an underwritten mess of a movie. It’s not. Case in point: in the midst of the film’s ostensible climax, Coach Rongen basically throws in the towel and tell his team to just have fun. As if having a good time is all that matter. That might be the case behind the scenes with Waititi and his team but those watching the finished product, much like the embarrassed American Samoa football fans circa 2001, are left wondering what the hell they just watched.

CONCLUSION: ‘Next Goal Wins’ is a cliche-driven, pop-culture-reference-drenched, empty collection of underdog sports dramas with a side of sedated comedy. It’s Taika Waititi’s worst effort to date.


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