"The Last Detail" can be defined as many things. It's a dark comedy. It's a coming of age story. But mainly, it's a road trip film.
The film begins at a naval base. 18-year-old sailor Larry (Randy Quaid) has been sentenced to eight years in a military prison for a minor crime. Officers Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned to transport the young sailor to a military prison in Portsmouth. But rather than go straight there, Buddusky decides instead to show Larry a good time before his prison sentence begins. They take trips all throughout the Northeast and engage in some serious boozing, fighting, and sex.
One could argue that "The Last Detail" is really about the things that define manliness. For example, Buddusky thinks that Larry must prove himself by punching him. He rejects, of course. The movie isn't necessarily saying Larry is any less of a man for not punching Buddusky, instead it questions society's very idea of what constitutes masculinity.
This movie was made when Jack Nicholson was at the height of his career. "Easy Rider" debuted three years earlier, and "Chinatown" would premiere the following year. He gives a performance in "The Last Detail" that is nothing short of typical Jack. This is not a bad thing, because just watching Jack be Jack is probably one of the greatest pleasures the cinema can offer. His constantly sarcastic attitude is often punctuated by moments of pure, real emotion. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film's final minutes.
Also giving a memorable performance is a very young Randy Quaid. He received the only Oscar nomination of his career for this film, and a very well deserved nomination it was. The role of Larry is a tough character to play. Despite the fact that he's heading to jail, Larry barely fits the standard of criminal. Besides stealing a few small items, he feels more timid than sinister. And because of Quaid's performance, we look past his flaws and see his better characteristics. Ironically, his transporters seem more fit for jail than he does.
Now, back to Hal Ashby. Ashby is perhaps best known for his 1971 masterpiece, "Harold and Maude," which bares many similarities to "The Last Detail." No, nobody dates an 80-year-old woman in this movie. But like "Harold and Maude," "The Last Detail" follows the formation of unlikely friendships and romances over incredibly small periods of time. During just a few short days, characters mature rapidly and basically live their lives for the very first time. Larry is the Harold of "The Last Detail," as he learns from his new mentors (this film's Maude) what it really means to live. And that's the spirit of an Ashby film, people learning how to get through life.
"The Last Detail" is about people. Very strange people. However, they're not so strange when compared to the people around them. On their long trip, the trio runs into gun-toting rednecks, Nixon-hating hippies, and worshippers. The film is really about exploring what makes every character so strange, yet so special. It feels like quite an inspiration for many major modern films, especially the recent "Away We Go."
The fact that a concept so small could inspire so many films shows the legacy of Ashby remains strong. "The Last Detail" proves his legacy: all you need is a good, original idea and some interesting characters to make a movie great.
Recommended for Fans of: Harold and Maude, Away We Go, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Easy Rider, Rushmore, Dazed and Confused