‘Next Goal Wins’ or — Not Waititi’s Worst Film, but That’s Also its Biggest Problem?
I’d heard bad things about Taika Waititi’s ‘Next Goal Wins’ (2023) so was somewhat surprised to discover it’s not as bloody god-awful as I’d been led to believe. Sure, it’s got massive issues, is shockingly formulaic and practically none of the humour lands but none of those are the film’s main problem and the film’s main problem, and I’ll take a deep breath before saying it, is this –
Taika Waititi is, and always has been, a visually uninteresting director.
Sure, he knows how to handle actors, execute a knowing gag and wring out a little heart but when it comes to any form of visual panache, engaging compositions, exhilarating camera work or fluid dynamism he’s as dull as ditch water and as leaden as a brick. ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (2014), by far his best film, works because of a smart, well-written script with characters honed to perfection, so it doesn’t need a directorial style that’s anything other than perfunctory, which is just as well because that’s what it has.
Any visual life his ‘Thor’ movies might accidentally demonstrate comes courtesy of Marvel’s effects team (a team he seems to have no problem bad-mouthing now he no longer needs them, which seems to be a recurring Waititi trait) and watching ‘Next Goal Wins’ you’re acutely aware that without all those bright colours to hide behind just how banal, half-arsed and profoundly pedestrian Waititi’s work can be. It’s one of the reasons my heart sank when it was announced, a couple of years ago, that he would be helming live action adaptations of ‘Akira’ plus Jodorowsky’s ‘The Incal’, both properties that demand a hand with immense visual command and from everything he’s made so far, especially with this movie, Waititi just doesn’t possess that at all.
What he does possess is an empty flippancy that not only replaces any genuine wit but also manages to self-sabotage any and all dramatic tension his work could possibly offer (if his films aren’t going to take anything seriously then why should we so what’s the point in watching them?), and ‘Next Goal Wins’, which seems to function purely on casual flippancy alone, highlights that unless Waititi can shake this adolescent tendency off that he’ll always be stuck in a trap of his own making where his films are devoid of any meaning, depth or capacity for true engagement.
Waititi has recently said he only took the Marvel work for the money and that it was never part of his career plan as an “auteur” and is now concentrating on his Star Wars movie. Obviously this has to be viewed, as with everything Waititi says, as more casual flippancy but even taken as such it still raises the question as to why someone who considers themselves, even ironically, as an auteur and above franchise work would want to move onto a Star Wars project, a franchise even more controlled, limited and restricted than Marvel itself? Again, meaning disintegrates and disperses away into the ether.
My hunch is that Waititi has drunk his own kool-aid and that his affectation of being a preening, self-aggrandising show-off has solidified and, like someone who makes a face when the wind changes, is now stuck with it. The mask has become the reality.
That’s the problem with ‘Next Goal Wins’. It’s not the film itself (it’s better than both ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ and the so-conceptually-misguided-it-should-never-have-been-made ‘Jojo Rabbit’) but more what it represents and what it represents is the deliberate squandering of talent. It’s the waste that sticks in the craw, and that’s something harder to flippantly laugh off.