Following the death of his wife, Arthur Pratt (Philip Baker Hall) is on the verge of taking his own life. However, just after he had finished burying his wife’s ashes at the park, a duckling crosses his path. Noticing that the duckling is all alone, Arthur decides to help it find its flock. Unfortunately, they end up finding the flock as roadkill. As a result, Arthur then chooses to take the surviving duckling back to his apartment, where he bathes and feeds it. No longer on the verge, Arthur is committed to raise and take care of the duckling, which he names “Joe.”
After being behind on rent, Arthur gets evicted from his apartment. Since the retirement homes refuse to allow any pets on their premises, Arthur and Joe return to the park, where the latter becomes a full-grown duck. There, Arthur picks up the litter he finds on the ground and offers it to a garbage collector (Noel Gugliemi), who informs him that the park is a part-landfill and part-construction site for a shopping mall.
Meanwhile, workers from a septic and sewage service arrive to drain a pond where Joe is paddling on. They try to shoo Joe away, but Joe has trouble commencing as he had never learned how to fly like any other ordinary duck. The workers then start throwing objects at Joe, which causes Arthur to come to his rescue. Following a quarrel with the workers, the fire department, members of the Psychological Evaluation Team, Animal Control and finally the police, Arthur and Joe leave the park for good and set out for a new journey.
During their journey, Arthur and Joe cross paths with other random people throughout Los Angeles such as: Norman (Bill Cobbs), a blind man on his way to the beach, accompanied by his guide dog Trisha; Leopold (Bill Brochtrup), a homeless man whom Arthur gives a pair of socks to; a third man (French Stewart) who, like Arthur, is also on the verge of suicide but simply because he knows his girlfriend is having an affair with his best friend; and a Vietnamese-American pedicurist (Amy Hill) who openly confesses to Arthur that her husband was killed in their native country and that she and her daughter moved to America for a better life. One night, the duo is also randomly invited to a Halloween costume party, where Arthur temporarily loses sight of Joe.
The next morning, Joe and Arthur make it to a bridge in which the latter decides it may be best that they part ways. Joe is stubborn at first, so Arthur just walks away. Joe then jumps off the bridge, and quacks in danger upon landing on the creek. Noticing the creek is full of toxic waste, Arthur once again rescues Joe. Arthur apologizes to Joe for abandoning him, telling him "I'd die without you, Joe."
Arthur and Joe finally make it to the beach, where the former allows his bare feet to touch the sand. There, they reunite with Norman and Trisha. The film fades to black as the four of them happily continue walking on the beach in horizon.Philip Baker Hall as Arthur Pratt
Bill Brochtrup as Leopold
Amy Hill as Pedicurist
Noel Gugliemi as Lord of the Garbage
Larry Cedar as Mr. Janney
French Stewart as Jumper
Bill Cobbs as Norman
According to The Boston Globe, Joe is portrayed by the Aflac duck.
Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, reports that 50% of 18 surveyed critics gave the film a positive review; the average rating is 5.3/10. Metacritic rated it 53/100 based on seven reviews. Lisa Nesselson of Variety called it "a small, affecting road movie peopled with sharp vignettes". Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter wrote, "Bettauer has a lot of serious things to put across about survival in the big, unfeeling metropolis, and while her modern-day fable obviously has Capra-esque intentions, the maudlin results cry out for a better focused, more sharply executed plan of attack." Gary Goldstein at reel.com rated it 1.5 stars, saying "Duck is a turkey" and "Bettauer's made a tedious, groan-worthy picture notable only for the bigger issues it attempts—and fails—to successfully explore than for any real entertainment value." The New York Times said "it tries too hard" and "ducks aren't all that endearing". Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe said that Bettauer "strikes a very uneasy balance" between playing for tears or laughs.