Premiering in the same Toronto film festival cinema and time slot as Jojo Rabbit four years prior, Taika Waititi is hoping to conjure a similarly magic reaction for his latest, long-delayed football comedy Next Goal Wins. His second world war satire was that year’s audience award winner before it became the next year’s best adapted screenplay Oscar winner, a result that elevated him to a new level of Hollywood royalty, however deserved that may have been.
But while Sunday’s premiere saw roars of laughter and cheers of approval from an easily manipulated audience, it’s doubtful that his latest will be able to emulate even a fraction of that success. The film is a shoddily made and strikingly unfunny attempt to tell an interesting story in an uninteresting way. Waititi was inspired by a 2014 documentary of the same name, which detailed the unlikely rise from infamy to a modicum of fame for the American Samoan football team. After the worst World Cup loss of all time, suffering a 31-0 disaster against Australia in 2001, ex-professional player Thomas Rongen, played here by comedy giant Michael Fassbender, was hired to drag them from the bottom and lift them to maybe just above the bottom instead.
In what’s shaping up to be a major comeback year for the sports movie (high: Creed III, low: everything else), Waititi’s appealing-on-paper underdog comedy is equipped with an awareness of genre cliches, name-checking everything from Any Given Sunday to The Karate Kid. It’s perhaps a little too aware, though, a procession of smug winks at the audience proving to be rather tiresome, diluting any of the film’s earnestness. There’s almost a lack of belief in the power of the story itself, with Waititi and co-writer Iain Morris, best known for The Inbetweeners, overstuffing every single scene with grating wackiness, each new character quirkier than the last, the film rapidly divorcing itself from any semblance of reality.
Their decision to over-sell the cartoonish comedic elements then makes it even stranger that they cast Fassbender, the actor known for his stony-faced seriousness struggling to cope with the absurdist circus that surrounds him (the fact that his ex-wife is played by a lost-looking Elisabeth Moss, another actor associated more with dark than light, is almost the film’s funniest, if entirely unintentional, joke). Fassbender’s heavy-drinking coach is tasked with training the team of incompetents to score their first goal in an official game and the film follows a familiar formula as they go from worse to bad but the hard work involved with this transition is sloppily conveyed to us, most of it lazily sped past in a montage.
There’s no real time spent trying to develop the team as individuals with only one of them, Jaiaya, played by non-binary actor Kaimana, allowed any arc. As a pre-op trans female dealing with an all-male team, their scenes are the most dramatically compelling and their chemistry with Fassbender the most effective. The difficulties of acceptance and the sadness of knowing that once a full transition has taken place, they’ll no linger be able to play with the team, provide the film’s only genuine moments of emotion.
When the big finale arrives, as unsuccessful as much of the film might have been, it’s hard not to root for them still but even harder to get involved in the action with Waititi, and cinematographer Lachlan Milne, shooting the much-anticipated gameplay with a maddening lack of skill and coherence (the film is lit horribly throughout, wasting an idyllic island paradise). A heavily telegraphed emotional reveal is equally ineffective, strings being pulled so obviously you can almost see them but it does at least allow Fassbender to briefly come into his own, a surer hand when the going gets tough.
Shot almost four years ago and drifting in the ether ever since, Next Goal Wins plays an unfunny old game, the real losers being those of us watching.
Next Goal Wins is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 17 November, the UK and Ireland on 26 December, and Australia on 1 January 2024.