Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Next Goal Wins (2023): A Review (Review #1815)



I had the great fortune to see a great sports film: Breaking Away. I think I got spoiled, for that Best Picture nominee was followed up in my viewing by one of the worst sports films I have ever seen: Next Goal Wins. Based on a true story, Next Goal Wins is so convinced that it is funny that it ends up being anything but. 

The American Samoan soccer team is the worst team to ever attempt to qualify for the World Cup. In 2001, the Australian Socceroos team did more than demolish the American Samoans. They won over them in a shocking 31-0 score. Since then, the Football Federation of American Samoa continues to struggle with an abysmal team. Now in 2014, there is a chance for FFAS to redeem themselves to the world and themselves.

Down on his luck coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) has been fired by his estranged wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) and her new boyfriend Alex (Will Arnett). He also has been sent by them to American Samoa on this mission of mercy. A bit of a lush with a tragic secret, Thomas cannot enjoy the beauty of American Samoa as he endures this motley crew of inept footballers. 

He also struggles to tolerate the quirky nature of the American Samoans. Of all the players, the most dominant in terms of story is Jaiyah (Kaimana), who is "fa'fafine", biologically male but really female. A bit of a distracted player, Jaiyah is only aggressive when you call Jaiyah by the birth name "Johnny". How will Rongen, this white man sent to be the team savior, be able to get his team to achieve FFAS' one task: get the team to score just one goal? Will the American Samoans rise to the occasion and show the world that they are not a joke?

Next Goal Wins works if and only if (and that is a big if) you see it as an inept parody of those inspirational sports film like Breaking Away or Hoosiers. You can make a good parody out of the concept, but Next Goal Wins appears to want to hedge its bets on that concept. If it was meant to be sincere, it ended up being an almost mean-spirited take on these characters. Everything in Next Goal Wins is so self-consciously broad that even in the parts that may be true to what happened come across as dreadful farce.

Director and cowriter Taika Waititi (writing with Iain Morris) never wanted to settle on whether Next Goal Wins was sincere or cynical. This almost crazed confusion comes a great deal from how the actors play the parts. It is almost sad to see good actors playing things so overtly broad that they looked as if they knew they were giving bad performances. In Fassbender's first scene, he attempts to justify his poor record. "You can be riding high in April, shot down in May," he tells them. I sat there absolutely shocked that Rongen was literally quoting the song That's Life when his job was on the line. Fassbender's delivery did not help. He is an exceptionally talented actor but throughout the film, he looked slightly crazed and with no growth.

Throwing in almost at the last minute a tragic story from his past crushes any sense of the forced wackiness Next Goal Wins was pushing. You cannot take any of this seriously when Rongen is ambushed at the airport by a camera crew for Who's on the Plane?, which we are told is the most popular show on the island. Every time, every single time, that Next Goal Wins wants to push how wacky and quirky everyone was, it ended up making everyone look either stupid or insane.

How do you take seriously a film where FFAS head Tavita (Oscar Kightley) literally sounds out the acronym as if it were literally what the organization is called?

A good chunk of Next Goal Wins revolves around Jaiyah, a curious decision on a number of levels. Jaiyah can technically play on the American Samoan team because Jaiyah is still listed as male. If we went with the idea that Jaiyah is female, does that mean that women can play with men in the men's league? There is a women's World Cup, so it is a bit confusing why Jaiyah is not with that team. Granted, there is no American Samoan women's team, but given that Next Goal Wins makes clear Jaiyah will transition, it seems close to having a woman on the men's team.

Moreover, nothing in Next Goal Wins suggests that Jaiyah in particular is a good-to-great soccer player. The film actually makes the case that in Jaiyah's flighty, distracted manner, Jaiyah should have been cut. Why the film focused so much on Jaiyah at the expense of someone like Nicky Salapu (Uli Latukefu), the 2001 goalie who wants a second chance to redeem himself, one does not know. It certainly does not help that Waititi opted to give himself a part as a local minister who opens Next Goal Wins. Why an ostensibly Protestant minister would wear a robe with Mary, Mother of Christ on it again one cannot explain.

We are told that the American Samoans are very religious. That religious aspect is played for laughs, such as their habit of literally stopping whatever they are doing when the bells rings. It does not make them look reverential. It makes them look like they are being summoned by the Morlocks. Given how big some of the American Samoan teammates are, the Morlocks could feast on them for months on end.

Next Goal Wins is more delusional than anyone who thinks the American Samoans will ever hoist the World Cup. I figure everyone aimed for another film of a group of athletes unsuited for their chosen sport. The Jamaican bobsled team from Cool Runnings however were in a funny film that did not make them look stupid.     


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