There’s a brief sequence somewhere along the middle of Woody Allen’s Whatever Works that is just about the most perfect scene imaginable in a film comedy. In it, a professor of philosophy at Columbia (played by the Irish actor Conleth Hill, flawlessly impersonating a New Yorker) and a Southern-fried matron named Marietta (Patricia Clarkson, in the ripest, most delectable role she has had onscreen to date) have gotten together at his place for drinks. Earlier, the auburn-curled, hot pink-clad, Mississippi-accented Marietta, bursting into the movie like a parody of William Inge archetypes, has announced that, in response to her husband’s infidelity, “I turned to Jesus in a deeper way than I ever have!” She clutches, as proof, a copy of the Holy Bible in one hand and a glass of darkly stained hard liquor in the other. Marietta might caricature a certain flower of Southern womanhood, yet as Allen conceives it and as Clarkson portrays her, the send-up is absolutely spot-on. At a subsequent lunch with her errant daughter Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), Marietta preaches her deeply held beliefs (“Abortion is murder!”) yet manages to magnetize the salt-and-pepper lion-maned Leo (Hill) all the same. He admires her breasts, her long legs, and acting on the notion that “a woman is easier to get in bed if she’s a member of the National Rifle Association,” he asks her out.
Listening to the Stan Getz recording of Jobim’s “Desafinado” in Leo’s apartment, Marietta shows him her Kodak snapshots of Melodie as a child. To her, the objects are one thing: cute pix of her daughter as a darlin’ baby girl. To Leo, they’re something else entirely. He praises the texture and composition of Marietta’s photographic eye; he speaks, to his guest’s bemused wonder, of the images’ “haunting quality,” which she, in turn, quietly regards as “a gift the good Lord Jesus gave me.”