In San Francisco, recently-divorced physician Archie Bollen (Scott) and newly-married socialite Petulia Danner (Christie) are both dissatisfied with their lives. The problem is that neither knows what it is he or she wants. Archie had a perfectly loving marriage until he chose to end it; why, not even he can say. Petulia creates around her a frenzy of activity to escape something in her life.
The two embark on an affair as a result of simply another one of those inexplicable impulses that mark Petulia's decisions. Their different personalities — Petulia's whimsical intensity and Archie's gentle passivity — gives both a fleeting understanding of what it is they lack. However, that very combination of impulse and lack of resistance leads them to mutually reject their chance at a meaningful relationship.
- The '60s: A common audience response is that Petulia doesn't feel like a film of the sixties as much as a film about or looking back at the sixties.
- Amicable Exes: Archie and Polo ostensibly come across this way, but their love/hate feelings for one another lead to moments of tension.
- Beauty Is Bad: Petulia's husband David, played by young, hunky Richard Chamberlain, is an abusive jerk.
- Call-Back: The shots of Archie and his kids running around The Presidio are very reminiscent of Richard Lester's breakthrough films A Hard Day's Night and Help!, not to mention two of the birds at the penguin show being named Ringo and George.
- Chekhov's Gun: Due to the film's non-linear structure, characters, objects and even lines of dialogue that don't seem particularly important (or are even confusing) at first have their significance revealed later on.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Petulia.Archie: I should explain about Petulia. She is a kook.
- Darker and Edgier: It can be thought of as a more downbeat San Francisco-based version of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
- Deadpan Snarker:
- ArchiePetulia: I'm going to marry you, Archie.Archie: It's the Pepsi Generation.
- Strangely enough, the members of The Grateful Dead who play extras in the scene where Petulia is taken to an ambulance also count.Bob Weir: Bye bye, mama.Jerry Garcia: Write if you get work!
- Did Not Get the Girl: Ultimately Petulia decides to go back to David.
- Dramedy: There are some funny moments in the film, but it has quite a few dark moments as well. The New York Times called it "a romantic tragedy with comic detailing".
- Eiffel Tower Effect: Set in San Francisco, so there are shots of cable cars, Alcatraz, Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge (though the bridge is only seen in a couple close-ups).
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Petulia fits the basic definition, but her portrayal is more like a deconstruction of the trope, showing the less-than-pleasant circumstances that can lead to someone developing that personality.
- Nothing Is Scarier: An unusual, non-horror example. We wonder what's wrong with Archie. There must be a reason why he left his family. He can't have left for no reason at all...surely?
- Shipper on Deck: Archie's colleague Barney keeps trying to convince Archie to get back together with Polo, mainly because his own marriage is in jeopardy and he wants reassurance that things can work out.
- Stalker with a Crush: Petulia and Archie both act as this at various times.
- Upper-Class Twit: David, intersecting with Rich in Dollars, Poor in Sense and verging on Idle Rich. Officially he's a "naval architect", but it's obvious that he doesn't really have any skills in life outside of being rich and being handsome.
- Would Hit a Girl: David (though it's kept offscreen).