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Next Goal Wins
A flat and surprisingly unfunny comedy -- with heart, supposedly -- stars Michael Fassbender as the Western coach brought in to turn around the pathetic American Samoa soccer team.
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When I bought my ticket to see “Next Goal Wins,” they gave me a little toy soccer ball as a promotional item. It’s the only indelible thing I’ll take away from the experience.
This surprisingly flat comedy — with heart, supposedly — stars Michael Fassbender as a Western coach brought in to turn around the pathetic American Samoa soccer team, which in all its history of international play has never even scored a single goal. In one World Cup match, they were beaten 31-0, which is supposed to be the worst drubbing ever.
It was directed by Taika Waititi, who’s best known for the funny Thor flicks. Even his big “serious movie,” 2019’s Nazi drama “Jojo Rabbit,” had comedy intrinsic to its DNA.
“Next Goal Wins” does not.
Waititi, who co-wrote the script with Iain Morris, seems more intent on passing along good vibes than actual laughs. The movie is a predictable series of encounters where the uptight white dude keeps harshing on the mellow American Samoans, who are impervious to his colonialist evil. Eventually their low-key, “hey-man-let’s-just-chill-and-play-for-fun” attitude overcomes the coach and he starts to absorb the good vibes.
The running joke is the locals don’t even care about winning a match. They just want to score a single goal so they aren’t total laughingstocks. Oscar Kightley plays Tavita, the eternally optimistic of the American Samoa football federation, who also drives the bus, runs the local restaurant, shoots the camera for the only TV station and seemingly many other jobs.
Fassbender plays Thomas Rongen, a Dutch-American former player and coach who has been fired from his last three jobs for his on-field rages, is offered the American Samoa gig as his last chance. His estranged wife (Elisabeth Moss), who sits on the soccer governing board with an uncredited Jason Sudeikis, regards him as a troublesome puppy who needs a new home.
Thomas is given just four weeks to turn around the American Samoan team in time for the World Cup tryout. He’s immediately ready to walk out on the job, but can’t quite bring himself to quit.
The team members are a mix of youngsters and guys who appear to be as old as their 50s, including an obese goalie who can’t block anything and an obese police officer with a golden right foot. They fall into predictable sports-movie types and are generally treated as background players, except for Daru (Beulah Koale), who has a reputation for roughness and is also Tavita’s son.
Thomas’ primary antagonism/relationship is with Jaiyah (Kaimana), a midfielder who does not seem to try very hard despite having the most natural talent. They are faʻafafine, a recognized gender identity across the Samoan diaspora, or what we would call transgender.
At first Thomas challenges Jaiyah’s right to even be on the team, and insists upon using their male birth name. This leads to much anger, which cools and calms into something respectful and even reciprocal.
I confess at first I thought the presence of this character was just an obligatory nod to inclusivity, but it’s a real person and this whole story falls into the category of “inspired by” actual events.
The movie pretty much follows all the usual sports movie tropes, with the added stereotypical layer of the white leader brought in to tutor the Black or brown locals who can’t get it done themselves, a la “Cool Runnings” or “McFarland, USA.” The screenwriters at least acknowledge this and (try to) make a joke of it, with one player riffing on the white savior complex.
And then there’s the issue of the star.
Fassbender is an incredibly skillful actor, though the words “natural comedic timing” are generally not associated with him — for good reason. His sweet spot is playing villains, or at least morally ambiguous men who are mercenary in their thoughts in indeeds, as seen in the recent “The Killer” or his Oscar-nominated turn in “Steve Jobs.”
Done up in a peroxide blond dye job — can’t even bother to touch those dark eyebrows, can they? — Fassbender performs much gnashing of teeth and angry glares, but nobody takes Thomas seriously. He’s a joke, but not the funny kind. He’s gifted with a backstory of listening to voice messages from his teen daughter, seemingly because the phone reception is so bad on the island, they keep missing each other.
It must be said this is a soccer movie, a sport I consider the absolute dullest on the planet. At least hockey has fighting. So the on-field stuff was laborious for me, even a jazzed-up movie version where we only see the highlights.
I was taken with pronunciation of American Samoa in the film, which I admit I always thought was “sah-MO-ah.” Turns out the indigenous people say “SAM-oh-uh,” which is both more logical and lovelier. I guess that and my little ball will have to suffice.