I attended the world premiere of “Next Goal Wins” at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Introducing the film, director Taika Waititi talked about colonialism and repeatedly punched his microphone until it broke. After getting another mic, he told us, “I’m going to twist the truth” with this movie, which is perfectly within his rights as a filmmaker.
If we wanted to know more about the true story that inspired his movie, Waititi said, we could watch the 2014 documentary “Next Goal Wins,” which follows the story of the American Samoa soccer team that, in 2001, infamously lost a game against Australia 31-0.
I second that notion: Watch the documentary instead, and not because of any truth-twisting Waititi employs. You should watch the other film because “Next Goal Wins” is abysmal. This film’s comic antics are relentless, exhausting, and devastatingly unfunny. Waititi’s script (co-written with Iain Morris) can’t go 30 seconds without attempting a laugh — and failing most of the time. It often feels as though the players are being cruelly mocked for their failure, which probably wasn’t the film’s intention.
Though the movie avoids the pitfall of otherizing its characters, it has little redeeming value. It gives us sports cliché after sports cliché, and as expected the primary focus is on the white protagonist’s problems and redemption.
The Samoans have only a single personality trait that distinguishes them from each other. The one fleshed-out player is Jaiyah (Kaimana), who is faʻafafine (a Samoan term for someone who is nonbinary, or has a third gender). Though treated with dignity, Jaiyah is ultimately reduced to a series of teachable moments for the film’s protagonist, Dutch-American soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender).
“Next Goal Wins” opens with Waititi onscreen as the film’s narrator. He’s here to tell us the story of American Samoa’s FIFA defeat at the 2001 World Cup qualifying match and the team’s attempt at redemption during the 2014 World Cup qualifier. Like Quentin Tarantino in his early films, Waititi can’t resist inserting himself into his material. Remember, he played Hitler in 2019′s “Jojo Rabbit.”
Tarantino is known for his trademark dialogue, but you buy it when it comes out of his characters’ mouths. Waititi’s characters in this film just seem like puppets. Maybe he should have played every single part.
After the director’s cameo, we’re introduced to Tavita (Oscar Kightley), leader of the American Samoa soccer federation. Tavita has just lost a bet and as a result must appear in public with his face covered in marker — scrawled drawings of breasts, and the word “BOOBS” written on his forehead.
The bet he lost was regarding how bad his team is, so now he needs help — someone who will make the team competitive enough to score one goal at the next qualifier.
Enter Coach Rongen, who has become so unemployable that taking this gig is his only option (it’s a story line you’ve seen before — in this year’s “Champions,” for example). He’s a drunk who has anger issues related to his estranged wife, Gail (Elisabeth Moss, wasted), who’s shacking up with her new boyfriend, Alex (Will Arnett). So let’s send him halfway across the globe to berate a bunch of lovable losers, right?
Someday, a sports movie will surprise me by sending in a coach who isn’t an emotional trainwreck, and who’s actually capable of doing the job without drowning in personal issues.
But not today! Rongen’s introduction to the American Samoan public involves him reciting a variation on Liam Neeson’s famous “very particular set of skills” speech from 2008’s “Taken.” Fassbender is horribly miscast. The actor has absolutely no comedic abilities whatsoever, and this is a movie that attempts more jokes per minute than “Airplane!.”
“Next Goal Wins” needed someone like the late John Candy, who coincidentally filled the coach role in the film it most reminded me of, 1993′s “Cool Runnings.” That movie, which told the story of the first Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, was funny and bittersweet, with memorable characters. Kightley and Kaimana, who provide the few moments of pleasure to be had here, deserved a movie like that one.
Full disclosure: The TIFF audience adored “Next Goal Wins,” so much so that I incorrectly predicted it would take the Audience Award (the prize went to “American Fiction”). But after sitting through this punishing comic misfire, I felt as beaten up as Waititi’s microphone.
NEXT GOAL WINS
Directed by Taika Waititi. Written by Waititi and Iain Morris. Starring Michael Fassbender, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, Elisabeth Moss, Will Arnett. At AMC Boston Common, suburbs. 103 minutes. PG-13 (rude humor)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.