The word “tragicomedy” gets thrown around entirely too much.  On one hand, it’s used to characterize murky Theater of the Absurd plays by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard that never made any human being so much as chuckle; on the other, it’s sometimes invoked to lend an air of respectability to “touching” Robin Williams movies.  Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, playing at Film Forum until April 11, is the real deal.  The story is simple: two navy men accompany a young prisoner to New York, and get into a lot of mischief along the way.  Yet this underrated masterpiece is often laugh-out-loud funny – and winds up being all the more tragic because of it.

First, the comedy.  Jack Nicholson plays Billy Buddusky, who’s as petty as petty officers come, and knows it.  It’s a matter of routine to say that Nicholson dominates whatever film he is in, but I can’t think of another role, not even McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that has given him such a perfect opportunity to showcase his dangerous charisma and his exasperation with stupid rules.  Officer Richard Mulhall (Otis Young) is the straight man during Buddusky’s temper tantrums, which, thanks to Robert Towne’s ingenious screenplay, raise profanity to the level of poetry (including an unforgettable combination of the words “horse” and “cock”).  Nicholson’s famous “I am the motherfuckin’ shore patrol!” monologue is still uproarious, as is the scene where he sends back a cheeseburger, which for uncomfortable laughs rivals his own quest to get an order of toast in Five Easy Pieces.  I pity every bureaucrat who gets in Buddusky’s way.

Freud said that laughter is the mind’s struggle to free itself from repression, and repression is everywhere in Ashby’s drab rendition of the early seventies.  Randy Quaid plays Lawrence Meadows, an innocent kleptomaniac who’s been sentenced to eight terrifying years in military prison for trying to steal forty dollars (“they’ll probably knock it down to six” is all the consolation Buddusky can give him).  Buddusky and Mulhall want to show him a good time before he’s locked up, but instead, they end up showing him how pathetic their own lives are.  Repeat: this is not the buddy comedy some people remember it being, with the experienced jokers teaching the young loser how to have a good time.  When Mulhall and Buddusky take Meadows to a party, they don’t have any more luck scoring chicks than he does.  The closest they’ve gotten to a war is watching an old movie in a hotel room.

Robert Towne is a shrewd writer as well as an inventive one; instead of leaving all the sadness for the third act, in the pattern of most dramatic comedies, he juxtaposes humor with drama throughout the film.  In one subtly brilliant scene, the three men, looking for somewhere to eat, stop at a nice-looking café, notice the fancy décor, and move on without saying a word.  There’s an unwritten law in this film that the lower classes keep to themselves; all three main characters – Buddusky because he’s violent and uneducated, Mulhall because he’s black, Meadows because he’s from a loser family of alcoholics – are trapped at the bottom of the food chain.  In between laughs, we realize the truth: the navy, stupid rules and all, is the only thing they have to live for.

The film’s ending has attracted some controversy for not posing a strong alternative to the drudgery of institutionalism – Buddusky snarls and swears, but at the end of the day, he does his duty, no questions asked.  This could easily be read as a weakness, or even a vindication of the social structures that send Meadows to prison.  But I think that Ashby has something much more troubling in mind.  In 1973, Nixon was back in the White House, and Kissinger had won a Nobel Peace Prize – it must have felt like The Man had won the war against counterculture.  In response, Ashby, himself a product of the counterculture movement, gives us a frustrated, confused film with no easy answers, and no characters strong enough to fight back.  When the men party with a group of hippies, they do nothing but chant and ask Mulhall condescending questions about being black (note his answer).  Ultimately, Nicholson’s character – an angry, violent man without any real solutions to the problems he sees – is an epitaph for the 1960s.

Hal Ashby may have been the director whose work best epitomized the mood of the seventies.  Many of his films are about big institutions – the army in Coming Home, inherited wealth in Harold and Maude, the government in Being There – that were supposed to go away in the sixties but only got more powerful with time.  That he fell off the map after the seventies comes as no surprise; the specter of the Establishment became old news, so people stopped seeing his movies.  When watching The Last Detail, though, I noticed a sad irony.  The film is nostalgic for the sixties, when people were brave enough to fight society’s problems.  Forty years later, one feels more nostalgic for the seventies, when people like Ashby were at least smart enough to realize that there was a problem in the first place.