The film opens with a scene from a soap opera. One woman (Donna Mills) convinces another woman (Susan Lucci) that she needs to be a strong woman. Hands her a gun. Two male actors walk up and add to the scene, all filmed in a master shot from set so you can see how silly it looks when seen this way.
We are told this film is a true story is inspired by strong women everywhere but mostly one in particular.
The films narrator introduces herself she is Mimi (Diane Ladd) who introduces the girls we see playing outside her dad’s auto body shop is a young Joy, there is her half-sister Peggy (from Joy’s father’s previous marriage), and there is Joy’s close friend, Jackie. Mimi also introduces us to Joy’s mother her daughter, Carrie (Virginia Madsen) who is obsessed with soap operas and Joy’s father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), the owner of the auto shop. We also see Mimi for the first time when she tries to instill confidence in Joy despite her dysfunctional upbringing she tells Joy she is going to grow up to be a strong woman, meet a nice man, have beautiful children, and is going to build wonderful things.
Young Joy is an inventor and she has built a house made of paper in her room. She tells her half-sister, Peggy, a story about a princess and her friends that live in the house Joy, herself, is represented by an origami swan and invited to play. Peggy tells her there needs to be a prince if there is a princess in the but Joy is adamant that there is no prince.
In present day, Carrie (Joy’s mom) is now watching a soap opera in her bedroom, which she never leaves. Because of this, Joy constantly has to cater to her and take care of her. At this moment, the adult Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is in her airline uniform, looking in her mother’s closet for the lanyard she needs for work. Instead she finds an old dog collar. She shows it to her mother, reminding her she invented it after choking their dog on a walk — it has a breakaway material so dogs can’t be choked. But her mom wouldn’t get a patent for her and now another company has patented it and is selling it. Carrie just responds that she doesn’t know how to do patents. We meet Joy’s two children as she wrangles them up. The doorbell rings, surprising everyone. It turns out to be Joy’s father who is having problems with his girlfriend of two years so he’s moving back into the basement. Joy says he cant because her ex-husband lives down there. Carrie tells Rudy he can’t stay there and he mocks her for watching soap operas and never leaving her room — he tells her she’s like a gas leak that is silently killing them all. They get into a quarrel and Rudy breaks a bunch of things, which upsets Carrie. Rudy goes downstairs into the basement to move in and Joy’s ex-husband, Tony (Ã‰dgar RamÃrez) is down there practicing a song in Spanish for an upcoming gig. Rudy and Tony begin to bicker. Joy tells them not to kill each other and uses a roll of toilet paper to divide the room in half. She goes upstairs, charging out the door with her cup of coffee to get to work. At the airline desk, a customer yells at her and throws her itinerary in Joy’s face, demanding to speak to her manager. Joy’s coworkers pull her aside and tell her she’s been moved to the night shift which Joy points out she can’t do because of her family.
Joy visits her dad at his shop, tells him about her job. Her older half sister, the adult Peggy (Elisabeth RÃ¶hm) is there, and she tells Joy she should take over Peggy’s position at the shop so she can do more important, managerial things for the company. She obviously has rivalry towards Joy and a self-aggrandizing attitude. It is mentioned that they have gun practice across the street (which will come into play later). Rudy makes a phone call about a woman he liked — he reveals to Joy he joined a service via a 900-number where he finds single women based on their four digit ID number. He talks on the phone to his selection, who is named Trudy — he finds this funny as his name is Rudy.
At home, Carrie continues watching soaps in bed while Joy tries to fix a huge leak under her floorboards. The entire bedroom is flooding and Joy chastises her mom for rinsing her hairbrush (and hair) in the sink. It is now so clogged, Joy says it’s beyond her abilities and she’ll have to call a plumber. Carrie is nervous about a man coming into her room because she has retreated from the world. Joy falls asleep while the soap opera plays and dreams she is in a soap opera, with the characters from the show harassing her alongside her own family.
We now flashback to what Joy’s life has been like and why her family causes her such anxiety. Her parents get divorced 17 years earlier. They argue over visitation rights and Rudy accidentally destroys the origami house that was shown to be so important to Young Joy earlier.
Years later, Joy’s childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco) invites Joy to a house party. When they arrive, a Mexican band is on stage, singing in Spanish. The lead singer is Tony, who grabs Joy and begins dancing with her. They go to the back room and have a conversation — he brags that he’s going to be a famous singer, the next Tom Jones. She tells him she was valedictorian of her class and got into a great college in Boston but had to give up on her dreams to stay home to watch her recluse mom. He tells Joy that her dreams are just on hold.
The next time we see the two, they are performing in a musical theater show together. As fake snow falls on the stage, they sing a song to each other.
Then we see their wedding. While Rudy is putting Joy’s veil on her head, he tells her she should have married a lawyer or a doctor. She is annoyed he is telling her this at that specific moment (her wedding). When it’s time to give a toast, Rudy goes into a huge speech about he likes Joy more than Peggy, he acknowledges his new girlfriend (the one who kicked him out at the beginning of the film), and tells Joy that her marriage won’t last. He then accidentally breaks the glass he is toasting with. Cut to Joy and Tony fighting, with their two kids in the room. He thinks she’s mad at him because he hasn’t becoming famous and is just playing gigs at the same club over and over. She tells him it’s because he drinks too much hence his current hangover. Her infant son begins to cry in Joys arms.
Back to present day. There is a ring at the doorbell. Joy now remembers she hired a plumber, who is a handsome black man from Haiti named Tousssaint. At first, Carrie is very nervous about him entering the room, citing a soap opera plot line where a woman is kidnapped in her home. Carrie asks Toussaint how long hell be; he says it should only take a day. She then asks if he can put a sheet up so she can have her own space while he works. He politely agrees and calls her mademoiselle. This changes her feelings about him and she now seems entranced.
Joy joins Rudy and his new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rosallina) on a date. She is an Italian woman whose husband has recently just died and she has been left with a lot of money. She tells Rudy about her husband’s boat that she inherited and invites Rudy’s family for a trip. Trudy asks them to bring wine but not red wine because it will stain the wood that her husband has had laid down on the deck.
Cut to Tony bringing bottles of red wine onto the boat despite Trudy’s discouragement. The yacht gets rocky and everyone struggles to keep his or her glasses from spilling. Joy’s glass actually breaks which horrifies Trudy. While the others lounge, Joy tries to mop up the glass and when she goes to wring the mop, she finds her hands are all cut up from shards of glass.
Back at her house, Joy’s cuts are catered to. She begins to fall asleep on the stairs, terrified of sleeping in her bed because of all the weird dreams she’s been having (i.e. the soap opera dream). The group gives her children’s cough syrup to put her to sleep. When she wakes up, she begins thinking. She has a new idea for an invention. She runs upstairs to her daughter’s room and begins drawing out her idea in crayon. Studies the yarn on a doll’s hair.
When Joy next sees Tony, she tells him she needs him to move out. He needs to get on with his life. Her father is ecstatic that he will now have the basement to himself but she tells him to move out, too. She says she has an idea for a new invention and she needs Trudy to put up the money. Rudy arranges for Trudy to pitch the idea in his office. Joy explains that she wants to design a self-wringing mop that you never have to touch, using her crayon drawings as visual aids. While she gives her speech, the work in the auto shop drowns out her voice so Rudy has to tell them to be quiet via the intercom. Trudy is skeptical, saying Joy doesn’t have a prototype but instead just some drawing. Rudy chimes in, saying Trudy will have to see a model of what she is envisioning. Joy goes to one of the welders in her dad’s shop and asks him if he can weld something for her.
Joy works and develops a mold of what she wants. Her mother surprises her by leaving her room to say hello — the plumber, Toussaint, is with her and it’s obvious they are smitten with each other.
Joy now pitches the prototype to Trudy, in the office again. This time, Jackie and Peggy are there. Joy loops 300 feet of cotton around Jackie’s hands for several minutes until it’s all combined into a mop head. She demonstrates how this means the mop is one continuous loop, which can easily be cleaned (instead of individual strings like most mop heads). She also adds you can remove it and clean it off in the washing machine. Trudy gives a speech that her husband worked hard every day for 50 years to earn his fortune and he said he would never forgive her if she mismanaged even one dollar. She was given four questions for prospective investment deals — the first is, where did Joy go to high school? The second is, what was her position in school? (Joy answers she was valedictorian). This appeases Trudy. Peggy interjects, saying Joy has never run a business in her life. She points out that shes been managing the auto shop and any investments should go towards that and not Joy. Jackie interjects, asking what the third question is. Trudy asks if Joy can promise a return in six months. Joy agrees which makes Tony nervous. Joy is then asked the fourth question, which is in the form of an analogy — “There is a gun on the table. The only other person in the room is an adversary in commerce. Only one of you can prevail. Do you pick up the gun?” Joy says it’s a weird question but assures her she will, in fact, pick up the gun. Trudy says she will have to tell her lawyers that Joy said that. She’s also going to check that there aren’t any existing patents similar.
After Trudy’s lawyer does a search, he finds a patent filed in Texas for a similar design by someone in Hong Kong. They work with a manufacturing plant in California and so Trudy arranged that they would be a part of the enterprise in exchange for providing work for the plant. It’s cheaper, anyway, than manufacturing it locally so Joy doesn’t have any issue with this. Edgar is angry, complaining that Trudy’s lawyer doesn’t specialize in but Rudy tells him to shut up and they bicker as usual.
Trudy gives Joy $50,000 to start up the operation. The plant in California sends over parts but they have overcharged her, billing her for redoing mistakes they made. This makes everyone nervous that they’re dealing with unscrupulous people. Joy phones Gerhardt, the man who filed the patent in Texas, and tells him that he’s overcharging her. He claims they were redoing her mistakes but she is not stupid and points out it was the plant’s and he’s trying to take advantage of her. She tells him she wont pay the overcharges. Joy hangs up to end the discussion, which impresses everyone else. She then tells all those in the office never to pay the overcharges.
Now Joy has to find a place to sell the mops. She starts by going to the head of a local store and pitches the mop to him. He tells her he doesn’t want to sell a $20 mop that you only have to buy once — he wants to sell a $5 mop that you have to buy hundreds of in your lifetime. The fact that the mop only needs to be purchased one time is a bad thing, in his mind, because there’s no return revenue.
Now, with an excess of product, Joy has to try to sell one by one. With her daughter in tow, she sets up a display in the parking lot of Kmart and tries to convince women passing by to purchase one. Nobody stops or engages in conversation. So Jackie jumps in and Joy walks by with her daughter, pretending to be a customer who is talked into trying the mop. Right as people begin to take notice, the police come and confiscate the mops, telling her she can’t solicit customers in their parking lot. Joy is upset they have taken three of her mops and goes back to her car — she has to kick the car door to get it to open. When she gets home, there is a bill taped to the door — she hasn’t paid the phone bill. Joy has now reached a new low. She has been given a huge loan from Trudy but cannot find any way to sell the product.
Then Tony, her ex-husband, visits and tells her he might have a friend who can help her sell the mop. (Its now clear that even though their marriage didn’t work out, they still care a lot about each other). Tony drives Joy to Amish country for a meeting but the large corporate building they’re headed to isn’t related to the Amish it just happens to be nearby. They wait and wait all day but are ignored — Tony hadn’t scheduled a meeting; he just happens to know someone who works there. That friend comes out and says they have to come back tomorrow for a possible chance to meet the guy in charge. Joy demands just two minutes and steps inside with her mop. There is a large meeting going on in a boardroom and Joy promises she just needs two minutes. She tells them about the mop but the guys just make sexual references when she talks about wringing the head. The man in charge Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) apologizes, says they’re tired after a long day. He asks her if she knows where she is. She says, no. He tells her the company is QVC and gives a history of his track record — he was a manager of several Kmart’s and worked his way up and up until he became appointed to run QVC. He tells her it stands for Quality, Value, Convenience. They sell great products, not junk, which is what her mop is. She confidently tells him it’s not junk.
In the QVC bathroom, Joy mops up the entire place until it is clean. She points out that she didn’t have to wring the mop once because it has 300 feet of continuous cotton. She then points to the adjacent kitchen, saying she has cleaned all over the toilet and would he use his family mop to then clean the kitchen, spreading those germs? With her mop, he can remove the mop head and wash it in the washing machine. Neil is convinced and he asks her if she can get 50,000 units by next week. Joy tells him, “I think so.”
Neil shows Joy around the makeup room in the building. The male spokesman is having a meltdown and he calms him down by telling him hes the best seller which upsets a spokeswoman seated nearby. Joy then is led out into the rotating studio. A dog runs to Joy as the stage rotates and it’s revealed to belong to Joan Rivers (Melissa Rivers, playing her real-life mother). Neil points out they use celebrities to sell along with their hosts. We see Joan and the spokeswoman sell jewelry to the audience. Neil points out they’re masterful at selling the product with their hands. The phones light up. The jewelry sells thousands and thousands, all kept track of on a large display nearby while dozens of phones are answered and callers gush about the product on air. Joy realizes she can sell out all her mops with this opportunity. But she needs more money.
Trudy is reluctant to give Joy another $200,000 because she hasn’t gotten her initial investment back. Peggy complains again, saying Joy shouldn’t get that kind of loan when she actually has ideas that pertain to her father’s business. Trudy decides it is only fair if Joy takes on the risk herself, putting up half of the money. It is suggested that she takes out a second mortgage. Joy is nervous but confident enough in QVC that she agrees. Now, realizing she might lose her home, Joy goes over to the gun range behind her father’s shop. She asks the man if she can shoot off a few rounds. He tells her he’s seen her grow up, coming in and out of the shop, but never talked to her. Joy shoots several rounds, apparently hitting her targets (we don’t see). She then hands back the gun, having gotten the rage out of her system.
An operation is set up in Rudy’s auto shop, with the order supply is kicked up to fill the 50,000 units. Joy is polite and speaks in Spanish to a group of women who she trains to assemble the mops.
Joy and her family gather around the TV to watch her mop being sold on QVC. The spokesman tries to demonstrate how to use it but he doesn’t know how instead he drips water all over his shoes and complains about getting wet. No calls come in. After dead air, they move on to another product. Joys family is horrified they have $250,000 tied up into this product selling. Joy receives a phone call from Neil. She tells him the salesperson didn’t know how to use the product but he said it just wasn’t a good product. She explains she is going to lose her home; he tells her that her contract says QVC will cover one-third of the expenses lost but even that isn’t guaranteed.
Trudy is distraught, saying she will have to declare bankruptcy and suggests Joy does, too. Instead Joy drives to the studio, demands a meeting with Neil. She tells him she has to be the one on camera. He tells her, “We don’t use regular people. We use spokesmodels and celebrities”. He asks her if she’s ever been on TV before, points out that most people freeze when the camera is on them. She tells him she uses the product so she will be the one to sell it. He is finally sold when she points out her demonstration in the QVC bathroom is what convinced him to put it on the air.
Backstage, Joy gets all dolled up in the same makeup room she saw during the tour. She is given an early 90s hairstyle and then changes into a poofy black early 90s style dress. She tells Neil she wants to make just one change. She comes out and her hair is down and she’s wearing a shirt and trousers. Joy tells Neil that’s what she wears and that outfit is her. Joan Rivers walks by and says Joy looks good but she should be in a skirt to show off her great legs. Joy says she’s going to have to ignore Joan Rivers suggestion.
Now Joy goes on the QVC stage. The camera rolls. Countdown. And then she freezes. She mumbles on-air that she’s Joy and doesn’t know what else to say. The family is watching once again from home. At the station, there is dead air. Everyone is panicking. Then a stage manager says they have a call. Neil says to patch it through. Joy is confused; how can they have a call already? She hears Jackie’s voice asking her about the mop. Joy perks up, knowing who’s on the other end. She tells the caller that its a mop with 300 feet of continuous cotton that you can clean an entire floor with, without having to wring it. Jackie replies, “That’s perfect for my family. I want three”. Now Joy gets more confident and begins pitching the mop. The phones light up. Orders pour through. After its sold tens of thousands, she tells the audience she hasn’t told them the best part you can remove the mop head and wash it in the washing machine. At the end of the broadcast, it has sold 50,000 units.
Neil congratulates Joy backstage. She said she was afraid he was going to tell her the counter was broken.
Joy goes on the QVC again, now selling 100,000 units. Neil tells her he is proud of her, and says that if they ever become adversaries in commerce, he hopes they’ll still respect each other. The love fest is broken up when Joy receives an urgent phone call.
The next scene shows Joy at the funeral of Mimi (ironically, Mimi narrates this event). Peggy shows up to the funeral late. Back at the house, Joy learns that Peggy was attending to some business in California. The manufacturing plant halted production until it could get more money. Peggy claims she took care of it by paying the money owed (when they overcharged Joy) and offering an extra $2 a unit. Joy is shocked, pointing out that if they paid that price, they would lose money. She now has to go to California herself with the argument that Peggy doesn’t represent her company. She tells Peggy, Never speak on my behalf about my business again.
Joy arrives in California in a dilapidated manufacturing factory. The waiting room has her mop on display, listed as their latest invention. When a man notices Joy waiting, she asks to speak to Marv Brickman but is told he’s not there. But Marv shows up and begins to debate with Joy about the deal he’s made with her half-sister. She says she didn’t approve that deal and she will go broke if she agreed to it. Joy finds it funny that ever since they had a lot of sales on TV, the plant want to demand more money. She accuses him of shaking them down. He tells her she should be paying more now because the increase in demand causes wear on their machines, that her molds break and have to be replaced every day. She is skeptical of her molds needing daily replacement and asks to see them. She is told no. It’s obvious she’s not getting anywhere with them. She asks to use their bathroom.
In the bathroom, Joy notices a side door that opens up into the factory. On a table is a blueprint of her mop design that they are claiming is their own. Marv finds Joy there and she screams at him, saying its her design. She tries to take back the molds but the police come and arrest her. Marv said he called them as soon as she showed up in the building. Outside, Joy is arrested for trespassing and put into a cop car.
Joy is bailed out of jail by Trudy, who has flown to California with Rudy and Joy’s daughter. Trudy points out that not only is she at a loss of over $150,000 but they now have new expenses flying there, bailing Joy out of jail. Joy has been told by their lawyer that when Peggy paid off the overcharges, it validated Joys work relationship with the factory. She can go to court and explain that Peggy had no jurisdiction to make business decisions on her behalf but the court case will take years and they’ll probably not even rule in her favor she shares a patent with the guy in Texas, therefore its his product as well as hers. Joy complains that they should have dealt with a patent lawyer, like Tony had originally said. Trudy and Rudy tell Joy they need her to declare bankruptcy and a notary is outside the room, with the paperwork. Rudy tells Joy its his own fault for giving her the confidence to think she was more than just an unemployed housewife. Joy now begins crying, tells her young daughter never to believe that shes special or that the world owes her anything. Her daughter reminds Joy of Mimi’s prophecy but Joy says Mimi was wrong; she wont achieve dreams. Hesitantly, Joy signs the bankruptcy papers. She then tears her crayon designs for the mop off the wall.
Joy goes to sleep. Then in the middle of the night, she cuts off her long hair in the bathroom. With a shorter hairdo, she seems more mature and now has a new confidence about her.
Joy flies out to Texas. She walks into her hotel and goes into her room. A man enters shortly after. She asks if hes Gerhardt. He says he could be or he could have been sent as a representative. Joy tells him that last night, she was distraught and called Hong Kong at 1:00 AM which is 5:00 PM their time she mumbles that it always amuses her how time works like that. When she mentioned to the Hong Kong inventor (who hired Gerhardt) about the patent, he said he was never told about the deal Gerhardt made with Joy. She points out this is fraud. She then looked into his design and realized its nothing like her own mop, after all. This is another count of fraud. She said her lawyers are very insistent that she file a lawsuit on these grounds. Immediately, Gerhardt backpedals and says hell pay back the $50,000 initial investment. Joy isn’t happy with this deal. He offers another $20,000. She ignores him. Then he offers another $50,000. She now acknowledges him and suggests he adds interest, too. He does. She smiles and pulls out a contract that absolves their relationships. She writes in that he will pay her $50,000 plus $50,000 and interest. He signs.
Joy walks down the street confidently. She looks into a stores window display. There is a house inside similar to the one she created as a young girl. A TV in the window says, Is it snowing? and on cue, fake snow begins to fall on her from overhead. Joy walks away.
Mimi tells us, as the narrator, that Joy didn’t know, when she walked down the street, what her life was going to become.
We now see a giant estate and are told Joy moved into a nice home. She had 100 more inventions things like velvet hangers who conserve closet space. Hundreds of million sold because apparently this is the kind of thing that consumers want. Joy employed her family and remained close to them, even after they sued her, claiming they were owed some of her money and that they were more involved in the inventions than they were.
Neil stops by and visits Joy on her estate. He wants her to work on the Home Shopping Network as QVCs biggest success story but she is hesitant. Their fondness for each other is adamant after all these years.
Joy sets up an office in her house for inventors like herself. A woman comes in with her husband and baby. Joy is very sweet and respectful to her, unlike the men she met with when she was pitching the Miracle Mop. Joy asks the lady where she’s from, what hotel she’s staying at. The woman shows her product to Joy a lint roller you can bring with you when you travel. Joy compliments the prototype and asks the woman to come back tomorrow. The woman tells her she only has one day off from work. Joy says she will have her team make a call to ensure the woman can stay an extra day. She also upgrades the woman to a nicer hotel so shell have more room for her baby. Joy says shes eager to have the design team meet with the lady so they can begin working on developing her invention for mass consumption.