The word "self-image" has been buzzing out of movie dialogue with suspicious frequency lately, suggesting a fresh outbreak of identity crisis in the Hollywood garden. During a heart-to-heart between Elliott Gould and Susan Anspach, the dreary romantic leads of "The Devil and Max Devlin," a misbegotten new diversion from the Disney studio, the hero is told, "The only problem with you, Max, is that you have no self-image."

In context this remark could only be interpreted as a sign of the heroine's kind-hearted ignorance. Gould's Max Devlin has a self-image all right, a deservedly shameful one. A slobby ne'er-do-well who has been managing a Los Angeles apartment house, Max is killed in a traffic accident (run over by a busload of Hare Krishnas, of all the undignified ways to go), from whence he descends straight to hell.

A satanic agent played by Bill Cosby, evidently as hard up for appealing roles as Gould and Anspach, offers Max the chance to make it easier on himself by corrupting some other souls. Rather than face the torments of the dreaded Level Four, Max agrees to get the signatures of three youngsters on eternal damnation contracts. These three are Julie Budd as an aspiring pop vocalist, David Knell as a high school wimp with a yen for motocross racing and Adam Rich (Nichloas on the "Eight Is Enough" series) as divorcee Anspach's towheaded, matchmaking darling.

On the face of it this plot seems kind of wormy, and it doesn't become more ingratiating as tediously acted out. Maybe if Max had the wit to pull an amusing double cross on the devil -- why not give him the Hare Krishnas in exchange for the kids? -- the pretext might stand a prayer of justifying itself. It's no fun at all watching a lumpy, glum Elliott Gould go through the motions of preying on a group of children before reforming himself with the foregone conclusion of a last-minute change of heart.

The real self-image problem may exist at the Disney organization, which appears to be groping desperately for less innocuous story material.

In the past year or so the company has suffered a number of setbacks that have shaken the confidence of executives once all too complacent about their market: "The Black Hole" didn't turn into the major success the studio had anticipated; a group of younger animators left to form their own company, interrupting a program designed to pass on the Disney animation tradition to a new generation of talent; the company backed a farce made by young filmmakers, "Midnight Madness," and then more or less disowned the disappointed finished product, a thriller called "A Watcher in the Woods."

The prospects are not exclusively bleak. Though delayed, a new animated feature, "The Fox and the Hound," will finally open this summer. Heeding the advice of a number of well-wishers who pointed out the affinities of "The Black Stallion" with the best of the Disney tradition, the studio agreed to back Carroll Ballard's second feature, a film version of Farley Mowat's "Never Cry Wolf," scheduled for release next Christmas. The success of those projects would tend to restore confidence of the most desirable sort, since animation and wildlife have always brought the company more prestige than domestic or supernatural comedy.

"The Devil and Max Devlin" reveals considerable confusion about what audience is being solicited and what ingredients might be safely expected to please this amorphous public. Gould, one surmises, is expected to fill the role once played by Fred MacMurray and Dean Jones, but he just tends to slop over. One problem is that he lacks the paternal appeal, dopey as it was, of his predecessors.

Julie Budd is treated like the budding Barbra Streisand she must imagine herself to be, but the delusion doesn't play. Evoking a fleeting hint of Janis Joplin self-pity doesn't help either. In the interests of token topicality, Budd's character is belatedly identified as a runaway and I suppose the same impulse accounts for Anspach's day-care center, the absence of the once standard "nuclear family" and the almost apologetic inserts of party girls in bikinis lounging in a hot tub at the garish condo of a record produceer, a small role embodied rather wittily by dreamy-eyed Charles Shamata.

A mishmash, "The Devil and Max Devlin" virually begs for reassurance. "Just tell us what you want!" the producers seem to plead as they chuck incompatible ingredients into the pot, all the while oblivious to the fact that they're merely aggravating a basically unsavory recipe. When the Disney crowd begins inviting us into the hot tub, it's time to administer tranquilizers and cold compresses.