By Mallory Pickard

In light of America’s afflicted age of evaporating business and surging layoffs, “bad timing” was admittedly my first reaction to the synopsis of “Up in the Air,” a film whose protagonist voyages around the country as the Grim Reaper of corporate downsizing. Not only is Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) a one-man professional firing squad– he genuinely enjoys his work and the compact lifestyle that comes with it.

Leave it to Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking, Juno) to completely defuse said negative assumptions and demonstrate in top form that now is the perfect time to explore the current status of America, and more importantly, the American dream. Reitman stays true to his style of weaving acerbic observations on American ethos into lovable, tangible characters, but it is his directorial dive into themes of self-discovery and the archetypal corporate machine that elevates “Up in the Air” into Oscar territory.

Take for example the scene in which Bingham (Clooney) prepares his overly ambitious protege, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), for her first firing in another no-name office building in a no-name town. Enter a brilliant cameo by JK Simmons. Kendrick rolls out her well-memorized, hollow pitch about new opportunities and slides the severance packet across the table like a checkmate. He doesn’t take the bait, and Clooney calmly interjects with a pitch so perfect that the lines between inspiration and beautifully packaged nothingness become blurred: “How much did they pay you to first give up on your dreams?”

It is these moments that allow Clooney to flawlessly portray a man who packages unemployment in the promise of the American Dream so well that “firing” becomes a sort of self-discovery facilitation. In reality, Bingham fires complete strangers for faceless companies too cowardly to handle it on their own, and without any sort of follow-up– both professionally and personally, he is a man who embraces artificial intimacy as a crucial part of his weightless lifestyle.

The challenges to his anonymity come in the form of two women. Natalie (Kendrick) is a Type A college graduate who joins Bingham’s firm with ambitions of turning the layoff business into a social media platform. The idea threatens to ground Bingham indefinitely, and when the two begin sparring about decency and the layoff process, the boss (Jason Bateman) assigns her to the road. Clooney and Kendrick create a humorously dysfunctional corporate-father-daughter rapport which namely involves Kendrick scrutinizing (perhaps ironically) Clooney’s detached way of life.

Challenge #2 comes in the form of Alex (Vera Farmiga), a gorgeous fellow frequent flyer who is openly attracted to Bingham’s plastic collection of elite memberships and credit cards. The sultry chemistry between Farmiga and Clooney has all the trappings of old Hollywood romance, and her presence on the road completes Clooney’s stand-in family. This is most apparent in a scene where Natalie outlines her American Dream (the Ivy League version involving a one-syllable name i-banking husband), and Alex advises her on what to truly seek including someone from a good family and a man who wants kids. In rare form, Bingham refrains from commenting and listens instead with an amused and somewhat distant look on his face.

It is not until the final scene that Bingham realizes the vacancy of the life he has chosen. Clooney perfectly captures the moment in which his dream of mobility and freedom from the machine finally meets reality as he stares blankly at another airline departure screen. The montage of talking heads from the opening scene then returns (note Reitman chose real people, not actors, who had recently been laid off for the film’s bookends), but the discussion has shifted from losing a job to the sustaining power of love and family in spite of loss.

Up in the Air unflinchingly portrays a culture of material identity, omnipresent marketing, and increasingly robotic interactions that all serve as various degrees of escapism from the bleak economic climate and more or less from reality. It does not preach, and it does not pass judgment; it simply is. One thing is clear though– no matter how loyal you are to a company or an airline or a brand name, no matter how much you embrace material culture as your own, it is having a family or someone to love that will sustain us when it all falls down– even the American Dream.

The host of awards the film has already won (including the Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award for Best Screenplay along with NBR awards for Best Actor, Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Kendrick) confirm that Reitman may have in fact chosen the perfect time to make Up in the Air. The film led the Golden Globes with six nominations, and most Oscar predictions are calling it a toss-up between Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and Up in the Air for Best Picture. I feel it undoubtedly deserves Best Screenplay, and given the impeccable cast, clean cinematography, and heightened relevancy, an Oscar for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture would all be well-deserved.