tiff 2023

Is Taika Waititi Even Trying Anymore?

The New Zealand filmmaker’s new film, Next Goal Wins, is so sloppily made that it might make you wonder why he even bothered. Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Searchlight Pictures

Some movies feel infused with the voice of their creators. Taika Waititi’s latest feels more like it regards its characters as sock puppets he can provide all the barely variegated voices for. This was especially evident at the premiere of Next Goal Wins at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the New Zealand filmmaker slo-mo walked up to the microphone, punched that microphone, and introduced his latest work by saying that he first learned about the American Samoan soccer team from a 2014 doc and couldn’t believe it was a true story. “I had to tell it … and twist that truth,” he joked. “Otherwise watch the documentary.”

Then the film started, and the first person on screen was … Taika Waititi, essentially continuing his on-stage bit as a preacher welcoming the audience to “this wonderful take of whoa” (not woe!). When other people, like Oscar Kightley and Michael Fassbender, start to appear, they also sound a lot like Taika Waititi, with the same style of jokes and compulsive movie references despite playing characters from opposite sides of the globe. It’s hardly the only indication that Waititi isn’t trying, but it’s the most disorienting. How do you make a fish-out-of-water comedy in which everyone, including your Dutch American protagonist, seems to be coming from the same vague cultural place?

In terms of geography, most of Next Goal Wins’ characters are residents of American Samoa, a handful of Pacific islands with a predominantly Polynesian population of around 50,000 that remains a territory of the U.S. It’s a fascinating place, though for the purposes of the movie, all that matters is that it’s a small community whose national team suffered the biggest loss in the history of international soccer, going down 31-0 to Australia in a World Cup qualifying round in 2001. When Thomas Rongen (Fassbender) is sent there in 2011 to serve as coach, it’s less a choice than an exile after he’s fired from his last job.

Fassbender, who’s unkindly been given a blond ’do that is exactly the same shade as his skin, is maybe the most miscast actor in history in this role, though he shouldn’t have to shoulder the blame for that. He doesn’t exhibit any real facility for comedy on screen, but Thomas is also an impossible character whose behavior varies wildly from scene to scene, from dickishness to rage to sensitivity to goofiness. When he’s greeted by a local camera crew upon his arrival at the airport in Pago Pago, his response is to do a riff on the “special set of skills” speech from Taken. It’s so random and unfunny, a non sequitur trying to take the shape of a joke, and while Fassbender gamely tries to make it work, the only performer who seems like they might have been able to navigate it is, well, the guy who put it in the script.

You can guess what happens next — Thomas takes over the ragtag team, and while there are clashes and misunderstandings at first, they start working together, and he ends up benefiting from the experience as much as the players do as they aim for the modest objective of scoring a single goal in the upcoming Pacific qualifying matches. Waititi doesn’t depart from this formula, but he barely establishes its basic elements. The training, as much as it happens at all, is consigned to a montage or two. Of the few players who are delineated from the rest of the team, one is what Samoans call fa’afafine — a trans woman named Jaiyah (Kaimana) who has to weather intentional deadnaming as well as blunt questions about her genitals from Thomas, only to immediately after become his closest ally.

Next Goal Wins is 103 minutes long, and yet it’s difficult, in retrospect, to come up with what all that screen time gets spent on. There are a few funny sequences, like the meeting with the American soccer board that inexplicably includes the wife (Elisabeth Moss) Thomas is separated from as well as her new boyfriend (Will Arnett), in which news of Thomas’s firing is delivered alongside slides about the stages of grief. But the film is otherwise so sloppily assembled, and so lazy, that it frequently ends up feeling like an inadvertent parody of the underdog-sports genre it belongs to.

That said, a parody would at least try to have more jokes. And while Next Goal Wins may be short on laughs, it also manages to do something more dire — it mangles its moment of inevitable triumph. It comes as a mild surprise to learn the message of Next Goal Wins is that soccer is just a game and that everyone should have fun, given that no one is shown to be working very intensely over the mere four weeks that Thomas is in charge. In fact, Thomas spends most of his time drinking (an element that’s never acknowledged by anyone) and then stalking away in frustration.

Waititi made a name for himself on the global stage by turning out reliably crowd-pleasing indies like Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, charming films that, for better and worse, then allowed him to level up to Marvel fare as well as the mess that was Jojo Rabbit. That’s one thing that Next Goal Wins has going for it — it doesn’t try for Hitler humor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really try for anything else, either.

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Is Taika Waititi Even Trying Anymore?