The film opens with Will Smith playing Chris Gardner, a San Franscisco man trying in vain to sell a bone scanner machine to a doctor at a hospital.
A voice over comes on, and he explains that this is his career, going around to hospitals and trying to sell bone density scanners to doctors, the problem is, they are not necessities to very many hospitals, and they are really expensive, making them a luxury that no one wants to spend money on.
He explains that the going it tough, but as long as he sells two a month they can afford to pay rent and buy groceries. It is shown later on, that he bought a mass quantity of them a few years ago and is still trying to sell them out of his apartment. He is constantly harassed by a homeless guy who thinks it's a time machine.
While taking a long shot and going to one more hospital that day, he calls his wife at work and tells her she needs to pick up their son from daycare.
When he gets home that night (still carrying two bone density scanners) his wife is irate and complains that she missed a shift at work because he was messing around.
The next day he sees a man park a beautiful car and prepare to head in to work at the Dean Witter Investment firm. Impressed, Chris asks what kind of job the man has. When the guy explains that he is a stock broker, Chris dishearteningly asks if you have to go to college to be a stock broker. The guy explains that you just have to be good with numbers and good with people. This intrigues Chris because he is good at both of these things. He approaches the building and not wanting to take his bone scanner in, he leaves it with a guitar playing hippie girl by the entrance and goes in.
"Can you watch this for me? You can't sell it anywhere, heck I can't and it's my job. Thanks."
He's directed to an office where he asks how to apply for a job there. He is given an application for internship. He thanks the man for the application just as he sees the hippie girl sprinting toward the subway. He runs out and chases her but she gets on a train and the doors close just before he can reach her. Later on in the movie he sees her again with her hippie boyfriend getting on the bus. He gets on too and grabs it from her.
That night he is looking over the application, and his wife expresses her disinterest and doubt that he could do it. He says that he used to go through a math book faster than anyone else in his grade when he was younger. He sees a Rubix cube on the table, it's his son's toy. He thinks he can figure it out, and within a few minutes has come close to solving it. He puts it down. (There is a scene later with a guy on TV talking about the Rubix cube saying how hard it is and how almost no one can do it.
He knows that he needs to make a good impression for the interview so he keeps calling the office and asking for Jay Twistle.
"A guy who had a name that sounded like he might shake my hand AND hug me."
He finally goes to Jay's office and catches him on his way to a meeting. He introduces himself and explains why he'd be really good for the job. Jay says he can't talk because he on his way to a meeting. Chris insists they share a cab because he's going that way anyway.
In the car Jay listens but seems distracted by his own Rubix cube. Chris, trying to get Jay to listen to him, insists that he can solve it. Jay doesn't believe him, but Chris takes it and explains his theory for how it works, he begins to twist and turn it, wanting to solve it before they reach Jay's meeting.
The cab driver keeps peeking back and trying to solve his own Rubix cube.
As they near Jay's stop, Chris manages to completely solve the rubix cube, leaving Jay speechless. He says he'll think about Chris' application, and gets out.
As the cab pulls away, Chris realizes that Jay forgot to pay the cabby, and looks in his wallet. Seeing that he has nowhere near enough money to pay the fare, he jumps out of the car and starts to run away. The cabby screams at him. Chris realizes his bone density scanner is in the front and shouts "NO!" running back toward the cab. He grabs it out and is apprehended by the cabby who demands pay. Chris screams that he doesn't have the money and pushes the cabby back onto his own taxi hood. He sprints toward the subway and runs through the terminal for a few minutes. You think he is in the clear until the tiny figure of the screaming cabby comes around the corner, still chasing him. Chris gets on a train just as the doors are closing but his scanner is trapped on the other side of the door. AS the train starts to move, Chris drops it. Right as the camera zooms away, you see the homeless guy run and grab it.
When Chris gets home, his landlord says he needs the rent money. Chris says he will get it, the landlord asks him to paint the walls of the apartment.
The day before his interview, Chris is painting the walls of his apartment and is wearing ratty jeans and a white t-shirt. His skin and hair are flecked and splotched with white paint. Some cops come to his door to escort him to the impound to pay a parking fine. He writes a check, but they can't let him leave until it clears, so they hold him overnight. This is a problem because the next morning he is released only about 30 minutes before his interview.
He sprints and arrives just in time, but is embarrassed because he has to go to it wearing ratty clothes, unshowered and flecked with dry paint. The group of men interviewing him include Jay Twistle. They ask Jay if he is usually dressed like this, and Jay, still impressed with Chris, vouches for him, saying that he was nicely dressed in a suit and tie when they met.
One of the men asks him "What would you say if I told you we once hired a man who came in without a shirt on?" Chris pauses then wittily replies "Those must have been some really nice pants." This makes everyone in the room laugh. This is where the audience sees that he is a very charismatic person, and that it will come in handy.
After the interview he is given the information for the internship, but he reads into it and sees that he will not be paid by them during the internship and says he'll have to think about it. Jay encourages him to go through with it.
When Chris goes home, his wife Linda is packing saying she is going to live in New York with her sister. They decide that Chris will take care of his son Christopher.
Unable to pay the rent on their apartment, Chris and Christopher go to a motel.
Their days are spent walking around the city and taking the bus to go to hospitals and try to sell the last bone scanners. One day while playing with Christopher at the park, Chris sees the homeless man who has his scanner. He takes it away and the homeless man wails. "No! I needed that! I wanted to back to the sixties man! I wanted to see Hendrix to the guitar on fire thing!"
When they return to their motel, their stuff had been set outside the room and the lock had been changed. Earlier that day Chris had found out that the IRS had taken money out of his bank account for not paying bills, so there is noway they can pay for a room anywhere.
They go to the subway and Chris tells his son that the homeless man was right, that they actually have a time machine. He pretends that it transported them back in time to see dinosaurs. He gets his son to play along and see that they are cavemen and they need a cave to be safe. They sleep in a bathroom.
The next day Chris tries to fix the scanner but the homeless man broke it. They go to the YWCA and ask to stay there, a woman tells them they can't because it's for women, but to go to a certain church in the city before 5:00 and they can get a room for free for the night.
There is a huge line of homeless people outside the church and Chris and his son make it in and get a room right before it fills up.
All this time Chris has been attending the internship program. He is learning a lot, but his manager keeps sending him out to get coffee. Chris misses precious time to make client calls but does not complain and does as he's told. He tries to sign more clients than anyone else. While the others take lunch breaks he keeps making calls. He also doesn't take water breaks, thus having no bathroom breaks. He is looking at the list of potential clients, and sees the name of a CEO who he knows would be a big deal if he got signed. Chris calls him and the guy tells him he can come to his office. On his way out to go see the CEO, his manager tells him to move his car. Chris rushes out to the manages car and gets to the office right after the CEO leaves his office.
Now Chris is upset having missed the opportunity to speak to the CEO, but now his managers car has a parking ticket on it. He pays it with his remaining money.
The next day he and Christopher walk to the CEO's house. Christopher asks if they can go to a ball game. Chris explains that they might. He rings the doorbell and the CEO says he'd love to talk but can't because he's going to a baseball game. He invites them to go along.
During the game Chris talks to him about his company's plan. The CEO says he would love to have Chris handle the investments, but can't let him since he's just an intern. The game is still a success though because some of the CEO's business man friends give Chris their cards.
One night at the church, while Christopher sleeps, Chris repairs the broken scanner and the next day sells it to a doctor, thus ridding himself of the very last one.
That night while eating at the church. Chris is going over things in his intern book because he is taking the big intern test the next day. His son asks if he's ready and he says 'of course' but the camera shot shows that he's not even halfway through the book.
The next day during the test, Chris and another intern finish really early and walk out. On the elevator, he asks Chris if he was really finished or if he had to be somewhere. Chris admits that he has to be somewhere, but that he completed the test. He asks the intern if he did OK on the essay question on the back of the test. The intern asks "Essay question??' He then frantically runs out of the elevator.
The next day Chris is called into the same room he had his interview in. He is facing all the same guys he did then, when he was wearing a wife-beater and covered in paint. He smiles and says "I decided to wear a shirt today since it was the last day and all." One of the guys smiles at him and tells him to wear a shirt tomorrow to, since they would love for him to come work at Dean Witter.
Chris nods happily, tears coming to his eyes. Finally he gets the thing he had worked so hard for without even a promise that he'd get it. He leaves, and pickups his son from daycare.
The film ends with them walking down the street, his son telling him Knock-knock jokes.
A man passes by, and Will Smith looks at him for a second. This is the REAL Chris Gardner.
It ends, after telling the audience that Chris Gardner went on to own his own investment company and makes millions of dollars.