Producers: Jonathan Cavendish, Garrett Basch, Taika Waititi, Mike Brett and Steve Jamison   Director: Taika Waititi   Screenplay: Taika Waititi and Iain Morris   Cast: Michael Fassbender, Elisabeth Moss, Oscar Kightley, Kaimana, David Fane, Will Arnett, Rachel House, Beulah Koale, Uli Latukefu, Chris Alosio, Lehi Makisi Falepapalangi, Semu Filipo, Ioane Goodhue, Rhys Darby, Angus Sampson, Luke Hemsworth, Kaitlyn Dever, Hio Pelesasa, David Tu’itupou, Levy Tuiala, Loretta Ables Sayre and Frankie Adams    Distributor: Searchlight Pictures

Grade: C-

This underdog sports movie from Taika Waititi, spotlighting the American Samoan soccer team’s turnaround from abject defeat to unlikely winners, has its heart in the right place, but manages to be both formulaic and shapeless.  “Next Goal Wins” follows the obligatory trajectory from humiliating loss to uplifting victory, with the arrival of a problematic new coach a major plot thread, but it presents the predictable arc in a structurally chaotic fashion, and suffers from a lead performance about as misjudged as one can imagine.

The movie, a dramatization of the real-life story recounted in Mike Brett and Steve Jamison’s 2014 documentary of the same name, begins with the American Samoan squad’s 31-0 loss to Australia in 2001, the most lopsided defeat in the history of FIFA qualifying competition.  In a desperate attempt to save face (and the team’s future, given that in the ensuing years they failed to score a single goal), Tavita (Oscar Kightley), head of the American Samoan Football Federation, decides to replace his soft-spoken, accommodating coach Ace (David Fane) with someone willing to add some rigor to the training for the 2014 qualifying competition.

The sole applicant for the job is Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), an erstwhile player and coach who’s become an embarrassment to FIFA due to his alcoholism and anger issues.  Informed by his wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss) from whom he’s separated (or divorced—which is never made clear), and her boyfriend Alex (Will Arnett), a FIFA official, that he has to clean up his act, he’s effectively assigned to take the position in American Samoa, which he does, though simmering with fury at the demotion despite, in one of the many comic scenes that’s poorly executed, quickly going through the stages of grief.

He arrives to find the team woefully disorganized, but rather than showing him training them effectively, the film is haphazard with on-field action, concentrating instead on Rongen’s reaction to the local culture, which he finds disconcerting: for example, everyone stops whatever they’re doing to pray communally at the tolling of a bell, though the script never bothers to explain what denomination they all belong to.  (The occasional appearance of Waititi as an oddball priest who sometimes breaks the fourth wall to serve as narrator only adds to the mystery.)

Yet despite Rongen’s apparent indifference to the nuts and bolts of play, his team—with the addition of some older, more experienced members—actually does manage to score in a qualifying match against their archrivals from Tonga (the two teams’ foot-stomping, chanting face-offs before the game should provoke laughs, but are too stolidly staged to do so), and even win.  It’s the modest triumph the genre demands before we’re offered the obligatory notices about what followed and footage of the real people portrayed.      

In general, all the locals are presented as colorful stereotypes, lovable but eccentric (something that Kightley handles with a delightfully laid-back manner).  That includes the players, who mostly remain mere sketches except for Jaiyah Saelua (Kaimana), a fa’afafine—one identifying as non-binary in Samoan culture—who became the first transgender player to compete in a FIFA Cup qualifier match.  Kaimana plays the role well, but the fraught relationship between Saelua and Rongen is treated as just one more learning mechanism for the coach; the player’s perspective is a secondary concern.

The imbalance is worsened by the fact that Fassbender gives a performance utterly unsuited to the material.  He seems to have no feel for comedy, playing Rongen as though the film were a hard-hitting drama.  It doesn’t help that the screenplay pretty much leaves him stranded, withholding the reason behind his shattered psyche until very late.  But even giving him the benefit of the doubt, Fassbender seems to have no clue about how to portray the character, and Waititi apparently failed to offer him much direction in that regard.  Meanwhile Moss and Arnett are completely wasted in thankless roles, generating not a single chuckle between them.

Inevitably the locations (in Hawaii, not American Samoa) offers cinematographer Lachlan Milne opportunities for some nice vistas and beach scenes, but even so the images he contrives are surprisingly drab, and though Miyako Bellizzi manages some nice costumes, Ra Vincent’s production design is threadbare.  As to the editing of Nicholas Monsour, the less said the better; this is one sloppy mess of a movie, though the fault probably lies more with the direction than the cutting afterward.  Michael Giacchino’s score attempts vainly to convince us we’re having a good time.

One doesn’t have to look far to see how this sort of thing can still work.  Last spring saw the release of “Champions,” which followed basically the same template as “Next Goal Wins,” except that it involved a basketball team of kids with intellectual disabilities.  Mark Rizzo’s script was predictable but sharp, director Bobby Farrelly realized it skillfully, and Woody Harrelson—a guy who knows his way around comedy—played the ostracized coach who helped the squad to tournament level with panache.  The result wasn’t great, or even particularly distinctive, but it had the welcome quality of a familiar tale told well.  Waititi’s slipshod, misguided movie, by contrast, stumbles on all counts.