NEXT GOAL WINS (2023) – Review
Seeing as how the football season is in full swing, filling up the TV over the next few weekends, how can the multiplex prey those sports fanatics away from the small screens? Easy. put a real-life underdog football story on the big screens. Ah, but there are a couple of twists. Unlike RUDY or ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, this new film actually focuses on what the USA sports fans call soccer, but called football globally. Oh, and it does take place way way across that globe, though it’s still technically part of this country. Plus it’s not the typical inspirational inspired-by-real-events drama, but a rollicking comedy helmed by one of the current kingpins of slapstick farce. This ragtag team of misfits just wants to score one point, perhaps in the hope that the NEXT GOAL WINS.
And just where is the setting for this story? Why, it takes place on the US territory of American Samoa. In the opening prologue, a zany local priest (Taika Watiti) relates the story of how the island’s official football was humiliated in the FIFA World Cup Finals, unable to score one goal as they lost by over thirty points at the start of the new century. Now, it’s 2014 and things have gotten worse. So bad, that the team’s manager Tavita (Oscar Kightly) pleads with FIFA to assign a new coach for them. On the other side of the world, that organization is “laying down the law” to a maverick Dutch-American coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender). He’s given one chance and is sent to American Samoa, much to his aggravation. Once he settled into the ramshackle digs provided for him, a boozy Rongen meets the bumbling, fumbling group of players. One of the few talents is Yaiyah (Kaimana), an energetic, but often tardy fa’afafine (local word for transgender). The duo clash immediately but eventually unite to recruit some promising natives (including a police officer) and eventually hatch a plan to sign up former members of the previous championship squad. Even with this “new blood” can the disgraced foreign coach bring glory to the little island by sending their team to “the big show”?
As the struggling island’s “last, best hope” Fassbender puts a snarky spin on the “second chance leader” role and elicits big laughs after a career of dark, brooding characters. Soon after his arrival, Rongen makes little effort to hide his annoyance at being “banished’ to this “off-the-grid purgatory”. Throughout the tale, Fassbender shows us how the coach begins to sober up after his long angry drunken stupor as he resolves to do “one good thing’ in bringing a sense of joy back to the team. There are the makings of a wacky comedy duo as Fassbender trades barbs and burns with the hapless Tavita played with loopy “sad sack’ delivery by the engaging Kightly. But the real sparks fly when the compelling Kaimana steps “up to the plate” (I know, wrong sport) as the force of nature Yaiyah. Through struggling with their decision (crippling pain from the transition medication), Yaiyah yearns for respect from Rongen after becoming a nurturing influence on the whole team. Aside from the terrific physical performers on the field, the film has a superb comic cast on the sidelines. Elizabeth Moss gets to display her comic “chops” as Rongen’s ex-wife turned boss (she’s on the FIFA board), who still encourages him to succeed while rebuffing his attempts to “rekindle the spark”. Her affections are courted by another co-worker played with smarmy arrogance by the great Will Arnett, always a hilarious comic jerk. As a sort of human “lapdog” is the great Rhys Darby who darts in and out of scenes to toss in off-kilter commentary. Oh, speaking of which, Waititi’s one-man Greek chorus, as the priest/narrator enhances every sequence as he simplifies things for us, the “non-natives”.
Oh, and Waititi does triple duty in that role while directing and co-writing the script with Iain Morris which is inspired by the 2014 documentary of the same name. Much as with his previous films outside the MCU, he populates the story with eccentric characters who are cluelessly confident in their pursuit of happiness, blithely unaware of their shortcomings. It’s evident before the games begin, as the team fails at intimidating opponents during pre-game tribal chants (a true cluster…). Waititi enjoys showcasing their foibles and failures, but still conveys an affection for these real underdogs, balancing the mockery with admiration. Though we feel we know the “uplifting” final moments, a few funny “curves” are thrown to keep the audience as off-balance as the goalie. The only real problem is that the film feels a bit “top-heavy”, with the biggest gags occurring in the opening half hour (the “boardroom intervention” is a riot) before the sports story tropes kick in before the dreaded midpoint lull of most modern movie comedies. But thanks to the terrific cast, there are more hits than misses, so for a different spin on athletes from an exotic culture, fans may want to leave those TV sports channels for the farce and fun of NEXT GOAL WINS.
2.5 Out of 4
NEXT GOAL WINS is now playing in theatres everywhere