Anyone born male in American between 1920 and 1950 knows that the idea of manhood stained his life. It was an idea with authority, with mystery…The peripheries extended beyond sex to those qualities you could not define — that assertion of will and determination which was supposed to be inherent in manhood. These were the ambiguities which proved so treacherous for most American men.
            — Leonard Kriegel

Willie (Michael Ontkean) is a Brooklyn born Jew who teaches high school in New York City. Phil (Ray Sharkey) is an Italian Catholic who is a fashion photographer. The meet in 1970 after seeing Truffaut's film Jules et Jim in Greenwich Village. Neither is doing what he really wants to do. Willie dreams of being a jazz pianist; Phil wants to be a "Jewish intellectual." They share the stories of their lives — including how they escaped the draft. Perhaps the strongest bond between them is their mutual confusion. Both men literally don't know who they are, what women want from them, or what they want for themselves.

Willie and Phil fall far short of the traditional ideal of masculinity. They are soft, out-of-focus children, yearning for something that they can't define. They are reactors to life rather than actors. Their friendship flourishes because together they add up to one whole, complicated, adventurous man. The catalyst which transforms their lives turns out to be Jeannette (Margot Kidder).

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love…
Just who can solve its mystery?
"What is This Thing Called Love?"

Jeannette has come to New York from Kentucky. She's a perky, pretty, and practical woman who knows a good thing when she finds it. Willie and Phil meet her in Washington Square and are enchanted. They soon become an inseparable threesome. After flipping a coin, Jeannette decides to move in with Willie. She advises him, "Never tell me that you love me. Just love me." He does. Then one night after the three have dropped acid, Jeannette and Phil make love. They all agree that their "destines are interlocked forever." But forever is a long time — especially for Americans.

Eventually Jeannette gets pregnant and marries Willie. They go off to a farm to fulfill his quest for the simple life near the good earth. Phil heads out to California and a career directing commercials. The child, Zelda, grows up, but she is not enough for her mother. Jeannette wants to re-enter society and get a job. At her insistence, they leave the farm and settle down with Phil in Malibu where he's found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She works for him as a film editor.

At one point in the movie, Jeannette's sister asks her what she mans by love. She responds, "Affection, emotion, passion, sex, desire, laughter, friendship, longing, lust, boredom, tears, hatred, sadness, joy…you know, love." For Willie, Phil, and Jeannette, love is a mystery — a funny thing that can't be pinned down or defined in one, two or even three ways. Since none of these individuals possesses a secure sense of identity, they are not capable of the self-abandonment sexual love calls for or the self-giving love a mature relationship demands. By the end of the story, each character has tried a variety of roles, ideals, jobs, and dreams but missed the satisfaction of sustained love and the beauty of authentic commitment to another person.

We have more freedom now, more permission to love almost anyone we want, but we also have more problems, more ambivalence. That to me is what characterizes the 70s: confusion. Those years were not about boldness, they were not yet about assurance. They were about thinking we had the answer only to discover that the answer went away, it flew out the window the next day.
            — Paul Mazursky

The taste for new experiences is deeply embedded in the American grain. Willie, Phil, and Jeanette refuse to accept less than a full share of life; one searches in a commune and in India for the answer which will give his life the harmony and wholeness it lacks; another looks for and finds wealth yet discovers that the fruits of his ambition taste sour; and the third does what she wants to do and nothing more. In the experience of these Mazursky characters, we trace several impulses out of the 1070s, including the thirst for a constantly revised self and an impatience with the restrictions and boundaries of fidelity to one person.

Like other Mazursky films, Willie and Phil exudes a certain rakish bonvivance; we identify with the threesome and their efforts to achieve "life with a capital L." When we meet their parents, it becomes easier to understand their escapades. And in the last scene, when it is reported that all three are now living very ordinary lives, our hearts go out to them with a mixture of joy and sadness. Joy in the hope that each has achieved a firmer sense of self and sadness in the fear that they may have lost in the process their dreams of all the wild possibilities. Willie and Phil is a provocative, humanistic, and multi-leveled film well worth seeing and discussing.