Bland photography and perfunctory writing are the very least of my issues with “Next Goal Wins,” a movie-shaped stain on the class of entertainment known as the sports-underdog comedy.
Inspired by Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s 2014 documentary of the same name, the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has concocted something so indolent, offensive and comedically barren that the only deserved response is bafflement. Whatever Waititi’s past sins — I’m looking at you, the cringe-inducing “Jojo Rabbit” (2019) — his work has usually been polished and, yes, funny; this degree of carelessness is something new.
A horrifyingly miscast Michael Fassbender stars as Thomas Rongen, a pugnacious Dutch-born soccer coach whose sideline rages have earned him professional banishment to American Samoa. Ten years earlier, the island’s soccer team had suffered a 31-0 defeat in its 2001 World Cup qualifying match against Australia, and since then has failed to score a single goal. With just three weeks until the team’s next important game, can Rongen whip its cosmically inept members into shape?
That, as it turns out, is the wrong question, as this inspired-by-true-events debacle disdains to embrace the familiar beats of its own genre. The team members are barely differentiated, their names and personalities mostly a blur and their training sessions given short shrift. As for Rongen — who appears to spend more time drinking and fuming than coaching — how he is helping is anyone’s guess. It’s soon clear, though, that fixing the team is not really the point: Rather, every good-natured, quirky inhabitant of this slow-moving island exists mainly to repair Rongen.
From the moment we see him exit the plane, dragging — in the film’s clunkiest metaphor — his damaged suitcase, we know Rongen is a broken man. His bitterness, though, extends beyond an estranged wife and her new boyfriend (a barely-seen Elisabeth Moss and Will Arnett); but the screenplay (by Waititi and Iain Morris) would rather indulge lazy jokes about the islanders’ lack of sophistication than earn the emotional capital it needs for the direction it plans to take.
This flippancy feels especially egregious when we meet the team’s talented transgender center forward, Jaiyah Saelua (an astonishing debut by Kaimana). Openly stunned by her easy glamour, Rongen crassly demands details of her physical transition before informing her that he intends to use her deadname. His treatment of her is vulgar and insulting, yet she will become his most important ally in recruiting the athletes that the team needs. She is also — thanks to the delicacy of Kaimana’s performance — the locus of what little heart the movie contains.
One crucial, late-movie conversation between the two is particularly troubling, as Jaiyah’s confessed gender struggles become roadkill on Rongen’s supposed journey toward sensitivity. The real Saelua (who appears with others in a brief coda before the end credits) was the first openly nonbinary and trans athlete to play in a FIFA World Cup qualifier; and as Waititi busies himself with sloppy humor and sports clichés, he fails to notice that a much better movie has been right in front of him all along.
Next Goal Wins
Rated PG-13 for minor vulgarity and major insensitivity. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. In theaters.