It keeps kicking and dreaming of being a better movie.
Taika Waititi’s latest film “Next Goal Win” is based on the American Samoa national team, who have been labeled the worst soccer team in the world. This team has lost more games than they can count to 10. They seriously need a new coach to whip them into shape. I can think the same for this movie.
You get some laughs and some spirits, but you don’t get the kind of heart and versatility Waititi provided in “Jojo Rabbit.” It’s basically in the same analogy as kicking the ball in the opposing goal. It thinks it knows where it’s running, but it ends up making the other team win the match.
Michael Fassbender (who did a much better job this year in “The Killer”) plays the Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen, whose behavior resorts in his separated wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) and their boss and her man friend Alex Magnussen (Will Arnett) sending him to American Samoa to train the bad players to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
He’s at his wits end with the team’s deplorable training and coordination, often quitting and then coming back again. He just needs to change their tune. And that’s why he recruits new players with better skills than all of them combined, and only one of them earns our respect.
There’s the transgender Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), who will be the only woman on this men’s team. Her registered name is Johnny. Don’t call her that or you’ll be sorry.
There’s also the bumbling cop Rambo (Semu Filipo), whose kicking earns him a position on the team. One minute he pulls Thomas over, the next minute the coach saves him from choking on his lunch, and in that same minute, he’s officially on the team.
And the “best goalkeeper American Samoa has ever had” is Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu, the young Dwayne Johnson on “Young Rock”).
On the side, Thomas also has an estranged relationship with his daughter Nicole (Kaitlyn Dever). She keeps calling him, leaving him voice mails, asking him where he is now. The way these scenes are handled are as cheesy as how Lily James told the kids she was babysitting reality versions of fairytales in last May’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?.”
And I guess to channel on Mel Brooks and Alfred Hitchcock, Waititi appears as a priest, who serves as the narrator and thinks he can walk on water. Now, he is a character actor with the right kind of levity and timing, and that also applies to his directing style, but “Next Goal Wins” doesn’t rank with his best. The screenplay tiptoes with the comedy and pathos, which isn’t always balanced. I did think it was funny when Thomas mocks one of his players, but I also know he was supposed to be serious.
Fassbender basically goes through the motions as Thomas, who is appears to be in some kind of version of responsible “Bad News Bears” coach, and this is a soccer movie. And both the Dever and Moss characters are flat and underdeveloped, that I don’t even think the movie is supposed to think they’re essential to the story. The emotional weight, sure, but there’s no essence in them or most of the familiar or unfamiliar names.
The film’s revelation, however, is Kaimana, who delivers a strong performance as a transgender trying to earn her place in life. She has her vulnerabilities, which are more compelling than the screenplay can give her credit for. I think if the film was more patient and gave her portrayal of Jaiyah Saelua more complexion, it might have been a better movie. Especially if she became the first transgender to compete in the World Cup. Missed Opportunity Alert!
I saw this movie last week, and it may find a spot in this awards season, as “Jojo Rabbit” did. I can’t say for sure. But even after talking about it this week, things haven’t really changed. Waititi is a brilliant comedy filmmaker, no doubt, but “Next Goal Wins” loses in the end.