Alfred Hitchcock on MacGuffins: It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin". The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin!" So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
In the case of the new Coen Brothers film Hail, Caesar! the MacGuffin is the kidnapping of film star Baird Whitlock. It’s there in all of the advertising materials. The poster is little more than an illustration of an unconscious Roman Centurion being carried over the shoulder of a figure in a suit and hat with a tagline that reads, “Lights. Camera. Abduction.” Yet in true Coen fashion, the questions of “Who done it?” and “Why?” are revealed roughly halfway through the film. These questions are not important. The kidnapping plot is just a delivery system for silly gags and an excuse to stage some lavishly retro production numbers. It’s what holds our attention as we switch rather abruptly between showbiz buffoonery and musical numbers. Of course there’s a touch of politics and religion sprinkled in for good measure, but don’t strain yourself trying to find too much meaning in it all. Is Mannix "The Christ" taking the weight of the world/studio onto his shoulders? Maybe? Don't worry about it. Enjoy the show! Nobody does bread and circuses quite like Joel and Ethan. Hail, Coens!