Director Alexander Payne says he's made a buddy comedy. Sure, in the same way 1999's wickedly dark ''Election'' was a teen movie. And the plot, based on the novel by Rex Pickett, sounds Payne-ful: Paul Giamatti (whose role George Clooney reportedly was interested in) is a depressed divorcé who takes his altar-bound friend (Thomas Haden Church) on a wine-tasting week that results in bachelor-party debauchery. ''I play this guy who's cultivated this ersatz sophistication -- I'm a writer! A wine expert! -- but I'm just a failed writer and a drunk,'' says Giamatti. ''We'll see if people think that's funny. Though I still say Payne should have gone with Clooney.'' With his fourth feature, Payne isn't messing too much with the sardonic style that's earned him acclaim -- and decent box office. In fact, there may even be a little overlap with 2002's ''About Schmidt.'' ''I show my bare ass in one scene,'' says Giamatti. ''But hopefully not in a disturbing, Kathy Bates-in-a-hot-tub way.''
WHAT'S AT STAKE ''Both 'Election' and 'About Schmidt' doubled their money,'' says Payne. ''As long as I can keep that going, all is well.''