Movies about famous artists have their broad-brush-stroke cliches -- the railing against bourgeois convention, the paint-splattered studios, the binge drinking, the womanizing, the madness, the genius -- but I've never seen a movie that embraces all of the above with such ludicrous middlebrow abandon as ''Modigliani." Mick Davis's film about the early-20th-century painter is an epic folly: a biopic that chooses stereotype over fact every chance it gets.
Amadeo Modigliani (played by Andy Garcia) was one of the more eccentric figures in the post-World War I Paris art scene, both in painting style and personal behavior. An Italian-born Jew, he worked in various media (including sculpture) before settling on the approach he remains known for: elongated oil portraits of women with serenely empty almond eyes. He was also a hard-core drinker, a drug addict, and a man who routinely had violent public scenes with his mistresses, including Jeanne Hebuterne (Elsa Zylberstein), the young art student who bore him a daughter.
There's enough melodrama there for several movies, but Davis stuffs it all into a sack labeled ''Modigliani vs. Picasso." By all accounts the two painters had a complicated relationship, but ''Modigliani" amps it up to the level of a professional wrestling smackdown, with the smug, corpulent Picasso (Omid Djalili) taunting the less successful artist into fits of cafe-society fury.
Djalili, a British-Iranian stand-up comedian who bears a resemblance to Alfred Molina, is simply miscast, but at least he has company. At 36, Zylberstein in no way suggests the 20-year-old Hebuterne, and as art dealer Leopold Zborowski, Louis Hilyer is lost beneath his fake beard. ''Modigliani" gives in to the shallow temptation to play spot-the-historical-figure: Look, there's Diego Rivera (Dan Astilean)! Jean Cocteau (Peter Capaldi)! Gertrude Stein (Miriam Margolyes)! As for Garcia, he manfully wraps his wracked purr around dialogue like ''Call me Modi. . . . Now I will paint you, and if I'm lucky, someday I will paint your eyes." It's a losing battle.
Art historians and members of the gaffe squad will find one howler after another: Edith Piaf sang ''La Vie en Rose" in 1946, not 1919; Modigliani died of tubercular meningitis, not from injuries sustained in a beating; how can Jeanne be nine months pregnant and have a 6-month-old child? The bigger crime, though, is Davis's kowtowing to the passe romantic myth of the divine madman-artist. Yes, Amadeo Modigliani was a walking disaster who created beautiful paintings, but there has to be more connecting the two than the boulevard sentiments here.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.