The year is 1981, and Chris Gardener (Will Smith) if trying to make a living by selling bone scanner machines in San Francisco to doctors and medical centers. It's a bother to lug around the clunky machines but he enjoys making connections with people. Although he is a natural born salesman, this African-American believes that he is destined for a better career path. His wife Linda (Thandie Newton) is working at two jobs to help pay the bills, and they are behind on their rent. Their five-year old son, Christopher (Jaden Christopher Syre Smith), goes to a day carecenter, and it bugs his dad that on the outside of the building, the term "the pursuit of happyness" is misspelled. He is convinced that these little details make all the difference in life.
The constant strain of financial pressure is too much for Linda to handle so she decides to take a job with a relative in a restaurant in New York. Although her husband is a disappointment to her, she does have confidence that he will find a way to take care of their son, and so she leaves Christopher with him.
Chris's persistence pays off when he is chosen for an internship program at a prestigious stock brokerage firm. The determining factor seems to be that he impresses one of the top officers by solving a Rubiks Cube in record time. It is obvious that he has a special gift for numbers in addition to his flair for sales. The only hitches to his new lease on life are that the program does not pay any salary and only one of the 20 interns will eventually be hired. Meanwhile, his financial condition grows more shaky when a few of his bone scanning machines are stolen, and he and his son are evicted from their apartment. They move into a small room at a motel but then are forced on to the streets. Father and son wind up sleeping in a bathroom in a bus station. Luckily, they are able to make this harrowing experience into a game by pretending they are hiding out in a cave from dinosaurs.
Meanwhile, Chris struggles at the brokerage firm in a competitive battle for clients. He makes a bold move to land a new account by visiting a CEO at home, and he and Christopher are invited to join him and his son at a San Francisco football game. They are awed by this glimpse into the world of the wealthy where everything is done first-class. But the CEO dashes the intern's hopes by telling him that he won't be able to have him handle his account because he is so new to the business.
The Pursuit of Happyness is based on the true story of Chris Gardner's struggle to achieve his share of the American dream. The Italian director, Gabriele Muccino, could have edited the story down quite a bit — especially the inordinate amount of time showing Gardener chasing after people who have stolen his scanners. One of them is a homeless man who thinks it is a time machine.
The drama does score some emotional points in its portrait of an African-American male who turns out to be an extraordinary single-parent. He nurtures his son with a tenderness and love that is impressive. We also liked the central role in the drama of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Chris and Christopher join other homeless people who find food and lodging there if they are lucky to get in line early. The Reverend Cecil Williams appears in the film along with the church's legendary choir.
The screenplay by Steve Conrad (Weather Man) presents a rather limited view of happiness by equating it with flashy cars, high-paying jobs, and luxurious homes. Gardener believes in capitalism, and he plays the competitive game well. We have no other choice but to cheer him on as he overcomes one obstacle and setback after another. Certainly his son's trust and love helps carry him along, but the movie wants us to believe that anyone can break through to the big money if they only apply themselves. That may have been true 60 years ago but it is not true today as the gap between the rich and the poor has turned into an abyss. The Pursuit of Happyness is propelled by Will Smith's energetic performance and the intimacy with young Chris comes naturally since he is played by his own real-life son.
Special DVD features include a commentary by director Gabriele Muccino; Father and Son: Onscreen and Off; The Man Behind the Movie: A Conversation with Chris Gardner; Making Pursuit: An Italian Take on the American Dream; Inside the Rubik’s Cube; and “I Can” song (audio only).