The plot concerns a "white trash" young man, Joe Dirt, who at first seems to be a "loser", a failure, an antihero. As he travels in search of his parents, his fine qualities are increasingly revealed. He ends up with a new "family" of close friends, people he has helped and who respect him. Critical reception was mostly negative, and the film was a modest financial success.
Joe Dirt is the janitor at a Los Angeles radio station. A producer drags him into the studio to talk live on the air with famous disc jockey, shock jock Zander Kelly.
Joe tells his life story. As a baby he had a mullet wig installed because the top of his skull had never formed. At age 8, he was left behind by his parents and sister at the Grand Canyon. He does not know his real surname. After growing up in a series of foster homes and travelling on the road as a kid while camping in the woods, Joe arrived in Silvertown, a small town in the Pacific Northwest, where he met the beautiful Brandy and her dog, Charlie, and became a target for jealousy from Robby, the town bully.
After Brandy's alcoholic father shoots Charlie dead, Joe decides to try to find his parents. He strikes up a friendship with Kicking Wing, an unsuccessful Native American fireworks salesman. In Indiana, Joe has an encounter with a skin cannibal named Buffalo Bob. This brings him unwanted attention from the media, but helps his search. He travels to Louisiana and works as a high school janitor with "Clem Doore", a former NYC mobster in the Witness Protection Program, with whom he becomes good friends. Joe discovers the address of his old family home and travels to Baton Rouge.
Listening to Joe's life story, both Zander and the radio audience initially find him an object of scorn, but Joe's kindness, his optimistic outlook on life, and his good-natured self deprecation win them over.
Eventually, Joe lands the janitorial job at the Los Angeles radio station, where he recounts how, after discovering his old home vacant and his parents long gone, he gives up the search and returns to Silvertown to be with Brandy. However, Robby informs him that Brandy found Joe's parents, but instructed Robby not to tell Joe. Robby shows a note from Brandy to prove it. Hearing this, Zander calls Brandy on the phone on air, to find out why. Brandy says she wanted to tell Joe in person, but never had the opportunity. Brandy tells Joe his parents were killed the day they were at the Grand Canyon; she pleads with Joe to return to Silvertown. Upset by the news, Joe stays in Los Angeles.
Joe is unaware that he has become a media sensation but he quickly discovers his newfound fame. An appearance on TRL with Carson Daly results in a phone call from a woman claiming to be Joe's mother. Joe realizes that she is indeed his mother and finds his parents' current house, where he and the media discover that his parents intentionally abandoned him at the Grand Canyon, and that they reconnected with him in order to take advantage of his newfound publicity to boost their sales of clown figurines. Angry and sad, Joe storms out, cutting ties with his parents.
Joe intends to commit suicide, but Brandy appears and says that she only told him his parents were dead to protect him from their greed. She invites Joe to come home with her, saying he "was home all along." Before Joe can come down from the ledge, he suffers a head injury in a freak accident when a policeman tries to prevent him from falling using a rope.
Joe wakes up in Brandy's house, surrounded by his friends: Brandy, Kicking Wing (who now owns 30 successful firework stands), Clem (now renamed Gert B. Frobe), and Charlene (another friend who is engaged to Doore). Brandy got Joe a new rastafarian dreadlock wig following his head operation. Brandy has retrieved Joe's Hemi, and she has a new dog that Charlie fathered.
Robby drives up and tells Joe that no one wants him in Silvertown, no matter how famous he is. Clem threatens Robby, and Charlene insults Robby's car. They all realize that they are like family to Joe. They ride off, leaving a frustrated Robby in the dust, his windshield broken by the stones thrown up by Joe's car. As they drive away, Zander plays a song for Joe on the radio, and fireworks go off in the sky (with special thanks to Kicking Wing)..38 Special – "Hold on Loosely"
April Wine – "Roller"
Argent – "Hold Your Head Up"
Bachman–Turner Overdrive – "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"
Bob Seger – "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man"
Blue Öyster Cult – "Burnin' for You"
Cheap Trick – "If You Want My Love"
Dave Matthews Band – "Crash into Me"
The Doobie Brothers – "Listen to the Music" / "China Grove"
Eddie Money – "Think I'm in Love" / "Walk on Water"
Foghat – "I Just Want to Make Love to You"
George Clinton – "Atomic Dog"
George Thorogood – "Who Do You Love?" / "Bad to the Bone"
James Gang – "Funk #49"
Joe Walsh – "Rocky Mountain Way"
Leif Garrett – "I Was Made for Dancin'"
Lynyrd Skynyrd – "Sweet Home Alabama" / "That Smell"
Sheriff – "When I'm with You"
Thin Lizzy – "Jailbreak"
Three Dog Night – "Shambala"
Van Halen – "Everybody Wants Some"
Joe Dirt opened at #4 in the domestic box office with $8,016,008 and went on to gross $27,087,695 domestically and $3,900,000 overseas for a worldwide total of $30,987,695; from an estimated $17.7 million budget; this can be considered a moderate success.
On critical response aggregation website Metacritic, the film has a rating of 20/100, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews". At aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 11%, based on 76 reviews, with an average rating of 3/10. The site's consensus reads, "If you fall within the target audience of Joe Dirt, you may find it funny. Otherwise, the jokes will seem like a tired retread." Despite reviews, Joe Dirt recouped its $17.7 million budget at the box office, and grossed over $27 million domestically.
Ebert and Roeper both gave the film a thumbs down. Richard Roeper criticized the film for being too predictable and strained, and said that the radio station storyline was "absurd". Roger Ebert agreed, but praised Spade for taking on a different role than he is normally associated with, and added that Spade's performance was convincing, despite the film's other shortcomings. That being said, Ebert would go on to include Joe Dirt as one of his most hated films of all time under the category of "alleged comedies" and going on to state, "What movies, including Joe Dirt, often do not understand is that the act of being buried in crap is not in and of itself funny."
The second verse of "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Close but No Cigar" from his album Straight Outta Lynwood contains the lyrics "I thought after all these years of searching around, I'd found my soulmate finally/But one day I found out she actually owned a copy of Joe Dirt on DVD."
In early 2010, Spade worked on a pilot with TBS for an animated series based on the film. The series never materialized.
In 2014, Spade revealed in a Reddit question that he was writing a sequel to Joe Dirt for Crackle. Entertainment Weekly has noted that the film is "the first ever made-for-digital sequel". Filming on the sequel began on November 17, 2014, with David Spade posting a first look at Joe Dirt on his Instagram. The film was released in July 2015 and received generally negative reviews.