Ashby’s was a remarkably tolerant approach to film comedy. What I found most surprising about Last Detail was how it refuses to satirize subjects that most contemporary American comedies would readily shoot down. In a crucial scene of the movie, the three protagonists—two lifelong sailors (Jack Nicholson, Otis Young) and the 18-year-old fuckup (Randy Quaid) they’re escorting to prison—look in on a new age chanting circle during their night in New York City. Ashby cuts between testimonials from different members of the group, all of them self-involved Me Generation stand-bys. One young woman, played by Gilda Radner in her first screen role, says of her “life experience,” “I really love the clarinet, and now I can’t remember why I wanted to play the flute . . .”
The woman is the sort of feathery liberal ditz that often populated Jules Feiffer’s cartoons, but Radner doesn’t play her for an obvious laugh. No word of the clarinet line gets emphasized to connote especial naivete or shallowness, as it would in a Saturday Night Live sketch: the sentence sounds like something a real person would actually say. This moment conveys Ashby’s sweet/stoned sensibility, his willingness to be distracted by spontaneous incident. When the Quaid character starts chanting like the New Agers he encounters, he seems to benefit from the activity, no matter how silly it may appear.
Ashby saves his bitterness for authority figures. Last Detail is, of course, an antiauthoritarian fable, and the film’s tolerance for oddballs and down-and-outers ends up feeding its contempt for the Navy’s punitive rules. While I accept the movie’s right to poetic license, I find it hard to believe that the Navy would lock up the kid for eight years because he stole $40; this stacks the deck in favor of the antiheroes from the very start. But since the movie’s so sympathetic to people and places rarely given a fair shake in American movies—cheap prostitutes, greasy diners, decrepit public parks—it’s easy to accept its broad strokes along with its nuanced observations.